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December 05, 2022

The Hottest Spot

By Michael Price

Buried amid the weeds and thistles of desolation, far, far away from where anything meaningful in life took place, raged a dark, foul-smelling prison of a bar the locals called Julia's. It was, on the surface, an unlikely location for such a busy drinking establishment, tucked away in a sea of rocks and clay. Nevertheless, Julia's was always the same -- crowded. Truth be known, lots of people absolutely hated it there. There was no in-between when it came to opinions on Julia's but certainly more than enough potential sinners regularly flocked there for their fill of decadence, roguery, and overall enjoyment. All sorts of deviltry ran amuck at Julia's, no one seemed to care. In fact, it was the kind of place one might frequent, more often than not, in boorish efforts to get away with virtually any such variety of sport. The old girl had thick walls, she did, what happened there stayed there, no one would ever know. Somehow, in a playfully sinister sort of way, there was something to be said for a spot where one could go to neglect a few family manners, down a little fire-water, perhaps bump into a few other Sunday School drop-outs, and with any luck at all, wake up in the morning casting an iniquitous grin in the bathroom mirror. Sure, it was a trap of sorts, everybody recognized its potential. But it had always been the hottest spot around.

Jay had been driving through a better than steady rain for what seemed an eternity when his vintage Mercedes decided to call it quits for the day, smack in the middle of "this damned, God-forsaken country," not too far yet way too far from home. His disposition sagged into negativity, the nagging padiddle of raindrops on the hood of his car adding fuel to his increasingly fiery mood. Frankly, he couldn't have cared less about the speech he had prepared. Returning home hadn't held more than two minutes of his interest since he'd left many years prior; that was hardly the point. But the idea of postponing his long and eagerly anticipated vacation abroad in reluctant lieu of delivering ten minutes of inane ceremonial ribbon-cutting remarks at his alma mater had developed into a pretty lousy decision, Jay thought as he pondered his next move, especially considering his apparently soggy immediate future. He wondered how far he had come, how far he was from the old home town campus -- he couldn't remember -- how far he was from anywhere. He exited his car with a splash and locked the doors, suddenly realizing how totally lost he was. He decided to continue on foot, sloshing through ankle deep puddles on the side of the road, rejecting the notion that anybody else might foolishly brave the elements on such a rotten day. Mom had always maintained that the folks back home weren't exactly the adventurous type, he particularly remembered that, dismissing any possibility that some other fool in a car might stop and save him from being terminally cleansed. He hadn't noticed another vehicle for almost an hour; he mudded on. He recalled the times he'd refused to wear galoshes in similar weather as a child, irritating his mother interminably, managing a paltry smirk aimed in the direction of his greatly soiled and currently very much appreciated galoshes. He shivered, it was getting chilly, too. He breathed a deep sigh of resignation, rationalizing that the new fine arts wing would no doubt adequately serve its purpose whether the renowned prodigal son author returned to deliver his two francs worth or not. By the time he reached Julia's Jay was tired, only a little less irritated, and definitely well rinsed.

Jay had heard a great deal about the place, from many locals in addition to his mother, dating back to his formative youth, but was quite certain he had never been there. He'd often been tempted, but mom's sermons concerning the types of horror that went on in a place like Julia's had always been difficult to block out of his mind -- all those "unholy folks," she'd said. Jay allowed a grim smile of recollection to surface as he splatted his way down the three weed-infested, cracked-cement steps of Julia's entryway, shaking himself as a drenched dog might in such weather, dotting the fogged-over, inch-and-a-half-thick glass door. He would simply call and cancel his speaking engagement. That was it, he decided, feeling better all the time. It was only a building, after all, this dedication thing. An unfeeling, inanimate object. One structure in the midst of a tiny scholastic community. In a town nobody had ever heard of anyway, in a state no different than any other. Country, world, universe, and whatever else came after that ... it really was pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things, what he was doing, he concluded. He would just call and politely tell his alma mater to ... well, stick it. Couldn't be helped. Sorry. Again he thought of his delayed trip, that if he hadn't earned it before this irritating and untimely saturated detour, he most certainly had now. Yes, he definitely wanted to go away, get away, do something different for a change, anything, and now he felt quite deserving. Jay decided he really did feel better as he stepped into the warmth, for he strongly felt he had earned at least one other thing: a drink.

"Holy buckets, man!"

The comedian draped over the first bar stool had a big mouth, enabling most of the throng to hear his thread-of-a-joke as Jay dripped towards the bar, acknowledging the noticeably less than amiable guffaws with a ritual tip of his once proud tam. Flushness overwhelmed his cheeks, due in equal parts to his all too sudden comic notoriety in addition to the rather balmy atmospheric conditions in the room, which were in oppressive contrast to the outside world. It was considerably louder than the drinking establishments he was accustomed to, each arena of alcoholic shenanigans doing its best to top the next in terms of both volume and intensity. A gray, dimly lit, dreary old hole, Jay's initial impression of Julia's was one of a bar that had always been there and would always be there. Regardless of whatever might happen within its walls, Julia's wasn't going anywhere. Lost souls going nowhere had to hang out somewhere, Jay reasoned, and evidently this was both somewhere and nowhere.

"Still rainin', huh?"

Jay looked at the dishevelment of a man, disdain and pity fighting for a spot on the tip of his brain. He opted to start out not ignoring Dr. Levity and see where it got him. "Uh huh," he said blandly.

"Well," the man continued, "'least it ain't rainin' in here." He emitted a shallow cackle into his drink.

Jay attempted a return laugh, but failed. "At least."

"Ya know," the man mused through spittle, "I don't get out and about like I used to, on account of this little problem I have, but ah ..." He raised his glass in a toast to himself, spilling as he cackled up a notch. "... ya know, I don't believe we get all that much pre-ci-pi-tation out here in these here parts." And the laugh track droned on.

"Yeah, I know, I know," Jay countered, sensing growing impatience in his own voice. "I'm from around here somewhere."

The man reeked of bewilderment, among other things. "That so? Funny, I never seen ya before, I swear it. Ya know, everybody knows damn near everybody 'round here. 'Tain't all that bigga place." He snorted an approving welcome, slapping Jay hard on his back. "Ah, what the hell, name's Brownton."

Brownton extended a grubby hand, upon which Jay executed an on the spot inspection, then aw what the hell shook. He seriously considered giving Brownton an alias. "Jay," he admitted, glancing around. "Say, I need to get to a pay phone ..."

"Busted," interrupted Brownton with his finest snort. "Ya know, Jay, tell ya the truth, seems like the damn thing ain't never worked. Stuff's always broke 'round here, ya know." Another vigorous slap to the back was matched with the recurring laughter, as Brownton continued his enjoyment.

His breath made Jay turn away, opportuning a more complete view of the hazy, overcast scene loitering all around him. He could scarcely hear what was most likely a jukebox that had obviously seen and heard better days feigning a melody in the background and wished it was louder so he could pretend he was listening. There were a couple of okay-looking ladies in the room, Jay observed, figuring, in consideration of his current situation, he probably shouldn't even look. Jay prioritized, womanizing finishing well down on the list. First and foremost -- leave. Get out of here, that's the most important thing, he thought to himself. Everything else would take care of itself as soon as he was anywhere but where he was. No phone. Cars. Rain. Wheels spinning in mud. Wheels not spinning at all. Jay forced a weak grin, bemoaning, "I wonder what my horoscope was for today."

Jay's back was starting to get red, he could feel it, as Brownton roared his approval which, once again, involved opening his mouth. Jay cringed. In the short time he'd spent at Julia's he had grown to detest Brownton's incessant, phlegm-curdling mirth, theorizing that there were more than a few reasons why the place had a certain reek to it, as his new acquaintance lit a putrid smelling cigar, his second since Jay had arrived.

"Ya know, I like ya, Jay, sure as hell I do. Lemme buy ya a drink."

"No, no, no, no ..."

"Hell, yeah. Whad'ya drink, Jay? Ya strike me as a whiskey kinda guy," Brownton prided, toasting himself.

"You really don't have to ..."

"Hell, ya don't get a chance to buy a new guy a drink every day now, do ya? Besides, ya look kinda ridiculous, ya know, all wet and all, no offense, but ... HEY YOU ... OLD MAN ... BAR KEEP ... GET YER LOUSY ASS DOWN HERE ... damned if you can get any service around here ... HEY, YA OLD GOAT!"

Jay felt the strong urge to disappear, preferably followed by an immediate and very necessary change of wardrobe. He sensed that he was well on his way to skipping right over drying out naturally and going from soaked to sweat-trodden much faster than he would have preferred, as his prior cleansing continued its rapid and disgusting transformation into the world of filth. He shrank in his shoes, feeling eyes from the immediate radius, piercing, almost bullying eyes, the kind of eyes that, were they little boys, would surely be pigeon-holed as playground bullies. With a sigh of resignation Jay slipped off his galoshes and droopy hat and accepted the bar stool next to Brownton. If you can't beat 'em, he shrugged to himself ... he'd spent his last cash on gas anyway which, at this point, seemed like a pretty stupid investment.

"OLD MAN! HEY YOU!"

"Hi there, sweety." It was a breathy, alto-timbered voice that split the ado. Jay's initial thought was that Mae West had been dead for years. He slowly turned to match voice with flesh but, before he could focus, the lips of his dreams invaded his mouth.

"Oh, for chrissake, Julia!" cackled Brownton, shaking his head, as he and the vicinity hooted with glee throughout the smothering, time suspending lip-lock. "The least ya could do is let a guy get drunk first."

It wasn't as if Jay didn't enjoy such spontaneous passion but he was starting to feel a bit like a circus act, a very much gawked at circus act. Flush had now become his permanent facial hue as he made a believable attempt to pry his face from hers. After his mouth had seemingly been branded for all eternity Jay was physically, almost violently, shoved away by the woman, clumsily falling back against the bar, more perplexed than ever. By the time he could regain some semblance of composure and make any attempts at emerging from the experience appearing the least bit suave and worldly, she was gone.

"Friendly," understated Jay in the direction of Brownton, tasting his freshly soiled lips.

"Welcome to Julia's," laughed Brownton, as the hooting began to wane.

Jay dabbed at his mouth with a filthy cuff. "That ... was Julia?"

"Yup," blurted Brownton, trying to restrain himself. "Ya oughta feel damned honored there, Jay. She don't show her mug 'round here much, ya know. Sort of a ... whad'ya call 'em ... silent partner, that's it. Just in it for the money ... ha! Ha! Sure as hell knows how'da leave an impression though, don't she?" Again Brownton rattled phlegm, hacking up beer snot, tobacco residue, and other local delicacies. Jay turned away in disgust.

"Where the hell's the fire, Brownton, ya no good pain in the ass!"

The bartender was a lanky relic, gaunt and willowy, with protruding eyeballs and a two-bit scraggle of a beard low-lighting an otherwise bony, hound of a face. He had a way of standing way back on his heels -- almost as if he had a tail behind him for support, thought Jay -- then slouching forward to, figuratively and literally, slop drinks on the bar. As he coiled over Brownton, looking ready to attack, it crossed Jay's mind that, if this were a western, the old goat would definitely be one of the bad guys, probably the brains of the outfit. As inconsequential and intimidated as the towering, brow-knitted bartender made Jay feel, thirst was starting to become a factor, as he wiped his brow with a sleeve.

"I'd like a drink," he intervened, hoping the old man wouldn't take offense. "Cognac. Better make it a double. Please. Sir."

The old goat glared down at Jay, who hoped that cognac had been introduced in "these here parts."

"Cognac ..." the man repeated, stroking his chin, trying to see it.

"Yeah, whatever the hell that is and I'll have me another beer," said Brownton, cutting in. "And I'm buyin'." The bartender sauntered away, flashing what would have been a toothy smile if he'd had any teeth to flash, as Brownton turned to Jay. "Ya know, I'd give ya a towel or a napkin or somethin' if I had me one but, ah ..." He assumed a friskable stance with a shrug.

"In the rest room, perhaps?" Jay was starting to offend himself; he was beginning to feel as if he was actually blending in amid the nauseation around him, a little piece of Julia's. He needed to freshen up in the worst way, and wondered if that would be possible.

Brownton snorted. "Ha!" he erupted loudly, spilling beer on himself and Jay, taking no notice. "That Julia, man, she's a cheap one, she is. Ain't never even seen no towels 'round here."

Jay swabbed himself with himself and heaved a deep sigh, which evolved into a cough. "I guess this is my lucky day."

The bartender returned with their drinks as Brownton laughed. "Ya know, Jay, yuz a pretty funny guy," he finally managed.

"Funny?" the old man hmphed. "It's more like there's somethin' queer about him, I'd say. Queer in the old way, the way it used to be. Comes ta six bucks even."

"Six bucks!" Brownton dropped his wallet, four-lettering its retrieval.

"Here, let me get this." Jay figured it would be easier.

"Geez, how much does that stuff cost, that cognac stuff?"

The old goat was almost grinning, stroking his scraggle. "Five bucks for a double," he droned.

Brownton appeared somewhat rattled as he meekly turned to Jay. "Geez, man, ya must be from somewheres else."

Out of habit, Jay reached for his money clip and came up with a clip. "Okay if I write you a check?"

"No checks," the bartender vetoed. "Julia's rule."

Jay was running out of options. "Credit card? You gotta take credit cards."

The man allowed a thread of a smile to stitch his face. "Sure," he said. "Not too often, but ... yeah, sure."

Jay flipped a piece of man-made material on the bar. "I'll just run a tab then, okay?"

"Right. A tab." The old goat looked at the credit card like it was a piece of meat. "We always run tabs here."

Brownton exchanged belly-laughs with the bartender, Jay dismissing it as some sort of local joke. He hadn't eaten anything all day and, despite some pretty gruesome mental images of what the food might be like at a place like Julia's, he was hungry, and needed some time to figure out his options. What to do next ... no phone. "And could I see a menu?"

"I'll see if I can scrape up some popcorn," said the man, walking away. "If we got any."

"If you got any? What, no burgers, no fries, not even a damn piece of celery?"

But the old man was out of ear shot. Popcorn -- old maids, no doubt, Jay figured, how he despised old maids. He felt even more famished just knowing he wasn't to be nourished any time soon. Nourished. The word sounded strange to him, considering where he was. He gulped at his drink, wishing he'd remembered to ask for a lemon twist like he usually did, realizing in the same brain wave that if the place had no menu there surely would be no fruit of any kind in sight. He determined that the thermostat had to be broken and/or everyone else was simply much more accustomed to the swelter than he was as he sat there, his pores complaining feverishly. At least I'm in a bar, he thought, really reaching for a silver lining. Liquor paralyzes the senses -- another of mom's sermons -- and he tried his Sunday best to ignore the simmering stench, making his drink an ex-drink in one final swill. He wanted another. And, depending on the weather, of course, another. If he could leave, he would. But, at the moment, another drink was definitely in order.

"Hey Brownton, want another one?"

Brownton picked up his glass and looked at it; it was still three-quarters full. "If you're buyin'," he said, substantially reducing the fraction.

The bartender set up another round, with Jay's credit card clasped between his gums. "Jay Stevenson, huh," he squinted at the card before returning it to the bar in front of Jay. "What's the other J stand for?"

"Nothing," said Jay with a wave of his non-drinking hand, mildly annoyed. "It doesn't matter. It's just me, that's all."

"Whatever," nonchalanted the old goat, the smile returning. "Whoever the hell ya are, your card's about to expire." And he walked away, chortling through his nose.

Jay looked at the card. The old man was right. No matter, thought Jay, it can't rain outside forever. Besides, eventually someone would leave. He could hitch a ride to his car, or somewhere. He stuffed the card in his pocket, deciding he wasn't ready to leave yet anyway. A few belts never hurt anybody, the time would pass faster. Did he really want to hoof it through another cold shower so soon? On the other hand ... but it would mean motivating, and he wasn't ready to do that.

"Mullins!"

Brownton threw his arms around a man Jay hoped wasn't driving. He was either being hugged or kept from falling, Jay wasn't sure, but apparently Brownton had a partner in crime.

"Ya know, Jay, it's been a helluva time, no kidding, but ah ..." Brownton slapped Mullins across the face and exhaled smoke at him, laughing. "... it's about time we gots ta go mingle." He leaned closer to Jay, as if he were about to whisper some deep, dark secret, but, instead, turned the volume up a notch. "Ya see, I'm known as kind of a ladies' man around here, ya know, but ah ... maybe we'll take a break a little later and let ya buy us a couple a' brewskis." He slapped Mullins once more, laughing both with and at him, straightened him up as best he could, and off they went, stumbling over each other in search of debauchery.

As the two breezed by Jay quick-checked his deodorant, which had long ago ceased living up to its name. What the hell, he thought, I'm here, might as well check out the place, as he made his way down the bar, then further into the room, his eyes beginning to water. As he looked out over the other inmates he couldn't help but wonder what was wrong with their cars, why they had been so sentenced, and why if anyone didn't absolutely have to be there ... surely there was some other place, a nicer place, any place would be better than this. Jay shook his head in dumbfounded amazement as he pushed his way through the lack of control. Each step he took squished and stuck on the filthy, greasy, cracked-tile floor, and he had difficulty deciding whether it was the volume, smell, booze, or general disorderliness that was starting to affect his mind, his pulse, his level-headedness. Perhaps a little of each, and maybe a few other things, he determined. The women were starting to look better to him, and he almost felt tempted. After all, if Brownton was considered a ladies' man ... maybe this place wouldn't be so bad after all. And when he didn't show up for that dedication thing everyone would just figure he got detained somehow. Which was true. He did. And was. He glanced at his watch, which had obviously stopped. That's odd, he thought, it's supposed to be waterproof.

"Outta the way, will ya, let an old broad through, huh?" Jay felt a sharp pinch in his backside, courtesy of, when he wheeled around to look, a woman who didn't look all that old to him, as he jumped out of her path. The girl, maybe out of high school, Jay guesstimated, was giggling through a front of resigned resolve, dragging along a silly-grinning man roughly by the arm, who was feigning difficulty in keeping up with her.

"Sorry," Jay offered, always one to be at least slightly taken aback by such aggressive impertinence. He watched as she led the man to a shadowed staircase on the other side of what appeared to be a seldomly used, recently undusted pool table, singing anti-melodically, "I'm a naughty girl, I'm a naughty girl." They disappeared up the stairs, accompanied by a chorus of apathetic jeering as Jay turned and, having seen about as much of Julia's as he cared to, trudged back to his seat.

"That's a shame," said the man who had taken Brownton's stool at the bar next to Jay's, a man who emitted an essence of a little less grime than the rest of Julia's. Jay speculated as to his time of arrival.

"Depends on your point of view," rebutted Jay, maintaining a cautious level of indifference. "Shame, possibly." He glanced around. "Could be grace, who knows?" He swallowed a wry smile but couldn't help noting his debater's intelligent looking mouth.

"Possibly. More shame than grace, I would think, though," reasoned the mouth matter-of-factly. "His shame, her shame, her shame his shame ..."

"Okay, okay," surrendered Jay. "Just trying to be optimistic, I guess." He idly imagined the odor of singed diplomas amid the malodorous fog, belching loudly.

"Bless you. You're new here. I'm Brantley."

Jay shook his hand. "Jay. Jay Stevenson. Say, I gotta ask ... I mean, no offense, Brantley, but ... I mean, I just don't get the appeal of this place."

Jay surveyed the room as Brantley sipped on a beverage, thoughtfully preparing his answer. A fight was sparking near the jukebox, which was doing its best not to sound warped. Brownton and Mullins were orating dirty jokes to a table of women, who were literally draped all over the two funny men and vice versa, all intoxicated with laughter. Another fellow, a small-boned man dressed in a horribly out of style suit, was on his hands and knees in the opposite corner, alone. Jay returned focus to his drink, not wanting to watch.

"I find it ... strangely soothing," Brantley pondered aloud. "Soothing as in just on the other side of a volcano, waiting to erupt." He addressed Jay directly. "It's easy, really. I can't recall how I originally found this place ... or how it found me, I don't know, but ... everybody's gotta be somewhere. It's sorta ... home, I guess, that's what it's like."

The sound of shattering glass controlled Jay's head, as the fight kindled into a flame. He found it disconcerting that no one, he included, made any effort to douse the blaze of violence, as the two drunken combatants rolled around in the muck, yelping wild profanities at each other. Splotches of blood provided vague respite to the grayness of the room, as the jukebox droned on:

I bruise you.

You bruise me.

We both bruise

Too easily.

Too easily ...

"Jay?"

"Yeah."

"Don't even look," said Brantley, lighting a cigarette. He then offered one to Jay, which was gladly accepted. Jay didn't usually smoke, only to be social or when he was overly anxious or perhaps a combination of both, but he knew he really wanted one of those cancer sticks right away. Brantley lit it for him and continued. "They'll probably be buying each other drinks later on. No big deal."

No big deal. No big deal. The words rang dissonance in Jay's ears. The dedication speech he was supposed to deliver at the college was no big deal. Certainly going back home in the first place was no big deal. Even the rain, despite the fact that it was a pretty good sized pain-in-the-ass at this point, was not really all that big of a deal, except for the fact that it forced him to stay where he was. But this, this open, undisciplined brutality, seemed like the very definition of a big deal to Jay, as he squeegeed his face with his hand, noticing that every drink on the bar was perspiring every bit as badly as he was. What if one of them died? BARROOM FATALITY GOES UNNOTICED, Jay headlined to himself, but couldn't help considering that a decomposing body might very well be olfactorially indistinguishable in a place like Julia's. Maybe Brantley was right, Jay chuckled involuntarily. Maybe it was no big deal.

"So ... what are you doing here, anyway?" asked Brantley, puffing away. "I know you've never been here before."

Jay took a long drag off his cigarette. "Well, it's like this: I found myself faced with a decision -- get soused out there or get soused in here. Cruel fate, I guess."

"Fate? I hardly think so. No such thing," said Brantley, in his finest scholarly tone. "She's not such a bad old girl, though, Julia's. I mean, for a bar."

Jay nodded his head in acceptance, not wishing to get involved in a discussion over Brantley's idea of a bad bar. He was starting to feel a bit woozy and belches were surfacing with more frequency and volume. "Excuse me, really," he pleaded, wondering if such a request was necessary fare at Julia's. "I was just on my way home. I'm sorta stuck here ..." He gestured over one shoulder, then the other. "... somewhere. I can't believe I ended up here."

Brantley was blowing smoke rings, watching them interlock with each other, then dissolve into and become a permanent part of the murk. "Exactly where is it you're headed?" he asked.

"Apparently, I'm here," sarcasted Jay, flipping an ash onto the floor following a brief, futile search for an ashtray. "I thought I was going home."

Brantley flashed what Jay determined to be sympathetic smile. "Well," he sipped slowly, "say hi to mom for me when you get there."

A cold shiver rattled Jay's spine as he studied his new friend closely, allowing a steady stream of grayness to escape via his nose.

"Actually," he stalled, searching for a vanilla comeback, "we had a bit of a falling out, I'm afraid."

"Ah. Sorry."

"She thinks I'm an atheist."

"Are you?"

"She's dead now."

"I got a big mouth."

Jay inhaled deeply, absently reading between the haze swimming across his vision. "I didn't even know," he squinted. "I was off ... I don't know ... trying to find the mathematical equation for faith, or something. Which is probably what kept her from suffering too much -- her faith, I mean. That is, if you wanna believe my dad."

"Your dad still around?"

Jay lowered his eyes, panning the room. "Dad ..." he shook his head, curling an eye-rolling grin, "... hell, I half-expect to bump into him here, in this stinkin' joint, bombed on his ass, of course, bad-mouthing the first thing that comes to whatever is left of his mind." He snorted in loving disgust. "Good ol' pop."

Brantley echoed with a snort of his own and joined in the perusal of Julia's. They watched as four plus-sized women kicked and slapped Brownton and his friend over and over again, the two cronies laughing aloud many drunken, obscenitized objections. A small crowd of fans had chosen sides and were cheering on their favorites. Brantley looked over at Jay, who stared on blankly, as they chain-smoked in silence for several minutes.

"Ya know," started Jay, still trancing, "I remember one time, when I was little ... ten, maybe ... I tried to kiss this girl in my class on the way home from school. Stephie Johnston, that was her name, Stephie Johnston. Her dad was always our Sunday School teacher, 'til I stopped going. She was quite the looker at the time. Real healthy type, if ya know what I mean."

"Sure, I know," smirked Brantley, swatting at an insect circling between them.

"Anyway, she wouldn't let me ... kiss her, I mean. She rattled off some Bible verse, I forget which one, doesn't matter. Anyhow, I was pretty devastated, ya know? I mean, I was only ten. I ran all the way home, crying, screaming. I remember running into the house, straight up the stairs, and I saw ... I mean, they were ... I thought he was gonna kill her, he was really going at it, on top of her and all, ya know? And mom just laid there ... I'd never seen her without any clothes on, not like that ... just laid there and took it. It didn't seem right at the time, ya know? And I was already pretty upset, with Stephie and all. Then she looked over and saw me, saw me standing in the doorway. I don't think he did, he sounded real liquored over ... I'm almost sure he didn't. But I'll never forget the look in her eyes. It was kind of a ... like a take a number kind of look, I guess, that's what it seemed like. Like she knew I needed her but had to let pop finish up first. Not a mean look, not at all, just sort of ... pleasant. Calm." Jay paused, lost in thought, then addressed Brantley directly. "Well, I just freaked out. Jumped down the stairs three at a time and ran out into the street. Damn near killed myself running into a parked car." Jay's cigarette had burned past the filter and he reflexed the remains out into the heart of Julia's, shoving a couple of grimy, singed fingers into his mouth. Brantley tried not to laugh, but did.

"Good story," he spat, doubling over with attempted restraint. "Sorry about the ending."

Jay was in too much pain to be miffed at Brantley for granting his soul-bearing a comic curtain call. He licked and soothed his fingers to a dull throb while Brantley sobered himself back to relative composure by burying himself in his drink. Jay followed Brantley's lead, attempting as masculine of a gloss-over as he could muster by downing his drink on the spot. He wished he had ordered something with ice in it, it would've made his hand feel better, but noticed that no drink anywhere nearby had ice in it, which, after momentarily thinking about it, hardly surprised him, as he wiped himself momentarily dry.

"I don't know how I got going on that," he said, slipping out of embarrassment. "That was a long time ago. Hell, I left home a long time ago. And now I'm back. Why, I have no idea."

Brantley just smiled. The political forum being held two and three seats down was heating up, demanding attention all its own, providing a welcome diversion for Jay. Accusations turned into threats, finger pointing into shoving, substantially increasing the sensually challenging pollution index in the room, the negative energy fitting its surroundings like hand in glove. Jay and Brantley drank in silence for the duration of two cigarettes, doing their best to ignore the nearby chaos, the ever-increasing multitudes of malevolence pounding on Jay's senses, demanding his attention. He signaled for another drink and thought of his now officially defunct vacation plans. Vacation. He loved the sound of the word, what it represented. Vacation. Escape. All he had to do was get out of this little spot he was in, that was all, just as soon as the rain stopped. Or someone left, he hadn't seen anyone leave yet. Oh, how he wished somebody would leave.

"Mr. Stevenson?"

Jay turned. He also liked the sound of the word attractive, and what it represented.

"J.J. Stevenson? The writer?"

"That's right," admitted Jay, trying to look as out of place as he could. "And who might I have the pleasure..."

"I read something you wrote once."

"Well, I certainly appreciate ..."

"I hated it. I didn't even understand it. Big words. Foreign words, too, I think. I never heard of those words, not around here. Stupid."

Under the big top again; Jay didn't even have to look, he could feel it. The young woman looked angry, for some reason, certainly liquored to some extent, but different than the others. He looked at her, her distinctive beauty set against such a backdrop of mayhem and filth. Suddenly it was she that seemed out of place, even more so than Jay felt. But of one thing Jay was certain: she was undoubtedly less than impressed with him.

"Maybe if I could explain..." he appeased.

"I read the papers," the young woman blurted, starting to build, noting Jay's drink and general appearance with a disdainful shake of her head and wave of her hand. "You're not even going to make it, are you? Are you, Mr. Stevenson? No pearls of wisdom from the exalted lips of hot-shot prodigal son author at our beloved Hick U. tonight, eh, Mr. Stevenson? Not that anyone around here would be able to understand you anyway. Oh, you're a real big man, all right. And let me thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of all of us local yokels for at least saying you'd make the ultimate sacrifice and grace us with your presence down here at our level."

"Miss, I don't see how I could possibly be blamed ..."

But the woman was on a serious roll. "You don't know me, Mr. J.J. Stevenson, but I knew you when you were growing up, before you became too good for us. I actually admired you, looked up to you, you had principles. But somehow those principles got ... I don't know, I ... I hope you've had a good time these last few years, Mr. Stevenson, a real good time. Do you have any idea what you did to your mother when you left, the way you left?"

"My mother happens to be ..."

"... leaving her like that, with that bum of a father of yours ..."

"Look, miss, we had a difference of opinion. I'm quite sure her nomination for sainthood is being expedited ..."

"Shut up! Just shut up!" she wailed. "I hate you for what you did to her. Just forget about all of us, we don't need you either. If we're not good enough for you, then ... to hell with you, too, Mr. Hot Shot Writer!" And she slapped Jay hard across the face before turning to leave.

Jay's blood pressure left normal in the dust. "Hey!" he thundered, easily tripling his audience. "I don't give a damn what you think! I don't care what anybody around here thinks! I did what I had to do, you don't have to like it, nobody does! I don't have to answer to anyone!"

"So typical ..."

"Enough! Listen lady, I'm sick of you. Hell, I'm sick of me. I'm sick of this rotten, stinking dungeon, and it makes me sick that I ever even thought about coming back. I'm just ... sick!"

Their eyes exchanged poisoned darts as she stormed away, sweeping drinks off tables with wildly swinging arm-strokes in her wake, muttering, "Damned, uppity ... thinks he's so damned smart ..." and such under her breath. Jay sat, fuming, his fingers having once again been singed by yet another ignored cigarette, though, this time, totally oblivious of the fact. Upon finally noticing the faint smell of burnt flesh he decided he wasn't drunk enough and ordered another double, and another for Brantley as well.

"Spunky lady," said Brantley, offering a weak smile.

Jay attempted an aura of coolness. "Huh? Oh ... uh ... yeah, I've already forgotten about her," he tried to convince himself aloud. "Doesn't bother me at all. Say Brantley, how 'bout a little toast, eh? Just you and me: to Julia, wherever the hell she went. May she torch the damn place just as soon as I get outta here." He started to raise his glass to his lips, stopping halfway. "Oh, sorry. You too, Brantley, I forgot. Hey Brantley, whad'ya say we fly this coop? I mean, this when in Rome stuff is gettin' kinda old, ya know what I mean? Rome ... ha! Funny, Rome. This sure as hell ain't anything like Rome. Greece, maybe. Get it, Brantley? Greece?" Jay soloed a sickly chuckle as he and Brantley clinked glasses, Jay spilling a good deal of cognac in his lap, taking no notice. Even if there had been towels, and even if he had noticed, he was well aware that he was far beyond the toweling-off stage of the evening anyway.

"Hey buddy, shoot me a smoke, will ya?" The long-hair in the ripped jean jacket and irreparably sullied jeans ensemble was talking to Jay, but the glaze of his blood-shot eyes was flitting between Jay and something behind the bar, or so it seemed, prompting Jay to turn around and look, more than once. "Hey, I'm talkin' ta you, pretty boy! Gimme a cig or I'll break your pretty face!" He grabbed Jay hard by the throat, coughed twice in his face, spewing liquid disgustion everywhere, and drew back a gnarly fist.

"I ... don't ... have ... any ..." eked Jay, attempting breath.

"Don't you lie ta me, I seen ya!"

"Let him go, Link," rescued Brantley, none too soon. Jay's uncomfortably rosy hue had taken a turn into purple and even Julia's air was a welcome guest to his lungs by the time Brantley intervened. Brantley tossed a few cigarettes at the man. "I got 'em, Link, leave him alone. Why don't you go do something important, like donating your body to science? Like now. God, you're such a loser, Link." And he lit a cigarette for him.

Jay rolled off his bar stool, once breathing had become less of an effort, steadying himself on his feet. He'd been sitting too long, he needed to stretch his legs, maybe even "mingle" a little. And, now that he was upright, his bodily functions were beginning to stress their importance. He squinted through the murky mist, toward the back of the bar, searching for a men's room in vain.

"Hey Brantley, I gotta water the ol' horse."

Brantley blanked a look at him, Jay questioningly pointing in every possible direction.

"I need to speak with the Lord," he sarcasted, a little louder. "You know, find a bit of relief?"

Still no response.

"Anybody know where the damn can is?" he blared at no one and everyone; someone had to know. "You know, the head, the biff, a place to sit down? Revolting smell, mind-expanding literature, possibly a sink or two? Not a towel for miles?"

Link was loitering nearby and knew the answer first, spastically gesturing toward a barely visible open door in the far back left corner of the room. In anticipatory consideration for his nose, Jay bummed another cigarette from Brantley and was on his way. He blindly reasoned that, at one time, perhaps, the restrooms might have been brand new, recently installed, but had a difficult time imagining such a notion, thoroughly disgusting himself trying to picture what they might be like now. He side-stepped his way through the din, methodically guesstimating the path of least horrible resistance, cursing the acuteness of his senses.

"Who's that?"

"Never seen him before."

"Some new guy."

"Yeah? Big deal."

"What'd he do?"

"Who cares."

"He'll rue the day he set foot in this place."

"Yeah."

"I heard he's some sorta smart guy."

"Intellectual crankery is better left out of this movement."

"Such a poor house tonight."

"Ya know, it started snowing ..."

As he knifed his way through the crowd, Jay experienced such an overwhelming feeling of paranoia, such as he had theretofore never felt, those rough little boys glowering right through him. He generally found it difficult -- at times, painful -- to look at anything anywhere for more than a couple seconds but, in a lapse of weakness and poor judgment, he mistakenly found himself adjusting his focus on, as much as he could tell considering the circumstances, a slightly better-than-average-looking Julia's female.

"What're you starin' at?" she bittered with volume. Jay redirected his attention and kept moving. "You gotta problem or what?" her voice followed him, a choir of guffaws commencing nearby. "All you guys, that's all you want, that ... smut ... ain't that it? Try to tell me that ain't why you're here, all you jerks." She was literally yelling, as Jay had maneuvered his way considerably past her, trying to look like every other guy in the area. Two men, hardly unable to overhear the raving woman, picked her up and carried her kicking and screaming body from table to table, soliciting any and all brutish assistance they encountered along the way, as others poured drinks of all kinds down her throat, until she got sick all over herself and the vicinity. And that's where she was dropped, in a heap, in a puddle, on the floor, as the guffaws reached fortissimo.

By that time, another ringleader and his entourage had picked up the harangue directed at Jay. "Hey you, big boy." The man's voiced was sopping scorn, Jay recognizing incoming idle mockery. "Hey big boy, you still kiss your mama?" Jay kept moving, rabid groupies closing in around him, taunting him with ridicule. "You don't?" Laughter. "You do?" Jeering. Jay wanted to haul off and slug the guy right then and there but was outnumbered in the very worst way and, now more than ever, his bladder was ready to spill. He slogged on, his temples throbbing with anger.

By the time Jay got within ten feet of his destination the stale, fishy stench of long standing urine and feces had initiated its assault on his nose, his eyes, and demanded its recognition. Its offensiveness was overwhelming, knocking Jay back on his heels, and he slipped into an unsavory half-cough, half-puke routine, keeping it up for the better portion of a minute. Upon finally reaching the open door he dodged a none too small rodent, which was exiting, Jay idly deciding that, once and for all, upchuck was definitely one word. Once inside the vast reeking sewer over which entrance Julia had hung a MEN sign Jay found himself in the midst of his worst nightmare. The litter and sewage on the floor was the floor and the walls were equally and excessively peeling and dripping amid a veritable thesaurus of crudely scrawled, even more crudely conceived messages. There was a man, his mind gone hours prior, slumped over in the far corner, attempting sex with a sink. Another man was confessing the worst of his sins at the top of his lungs to something in the last stall, which had no door and in which the toilet had evidently overflowed several times, severely unattended to. Two behemoths, fiftyish, ex-high school offensive lineman-types, now grossly hairy and over-paunched, were anchoring the urinals, suggesting profane parental advice to anyone within earshot. Yet another poor fellow was hunched over in the middle of the entryway, moaning, bleeding from the mouth, the victim of some sort of fall, Jay presumed and, frankly, hoped. The smell of human excrement was stifling and inescapable and Jay woozed his way through the film of sensual disgust, trying not to breathe, pulling up to the last remaining urinal. While there, Jay felt no relief, as he usually did. Even when he was done he felt as if he needed to do more. But no, he was through, there was no question about that. There was no more to be done, and he zipped up his trousers. The only unoccupied sink was oozing a thick, brownish liquid so he wiped his hands on his shirt, which was literally dripping with perspiration. Bathing in one's own natural juices; this was, undoubtedly, the Julia's manner in which to cleanse one's self, thought Jay, staring into a cracked, clouded-over mirror, seeing nothing. He felt quite ill and needed air.

"Heb ... me ... pease ..." the entryway bleeder pleaded to no one and everyone, as Jay stepped over him on his way out. The man was holding in his hand what appeared to be a large portion of his tongue or lip -- it was difficult to tell, exactly -- as Jay eluded a small pool of blood in addition to other larger, more offensive puddles in his path. His sub-conscious urge was to scream or vomit or both, but felt certain that a random scream would hardly be acknowledged or even noticed at all above the heedless tumult of Julia's, and his stomach was far too empty to ensure vomiting as a satisfying alternative. He belched again. And again and again, without scant consideration of excusing himself anymore, the repulsive scent of much-too-quickly-processed cognac wafting back at him, assaulting his own nostrils. Someone had shut the door. He leaned it open, the disgustion simply changing rooms, Jay deciding there was as little relief going out as coming in.

The humidity of the room engulfed him as he absorbed the chaos that was Julia's, his visibility severely impaired, due, primarily, to the suffocating screen of filth that was everywhere. His worst nightmare, indeed; that was the only way to describe it as Jay stood outside the men's room door, in disquieted observation of the surreal scene before him, trying in vain to think of one good thing that had happened that day, beginning with his decision to return home. A full-bearded man dressed in combat fatigues and holey tennis shoes physically implored Jay to sign a petition for some sort of religious cause. Or possibly it was political, Jay couldn't understand the drunken man very clearly, nor did he care what he was saying, he was trying his best not to pay attention, he didn't even want to know.

"Sir, you are an anti-social being!" the man orated as plainly as he was able, following Jay's equally physical brush-off, then stumbled to the floor, where he sat, stunned, cursing unintelligibly. Jay watched a most unsubtle pick-pocket work the room, alarmingly successful in many cases, albeit sustaining a few minor bruises and abrasions along the way. Absolutely no one seemed the least bit sober, prompting Jay to wonder if he would even be willing to accept a ride if it were offered to him. One intoxicated non-candidate was randomly bolting between the tables, grandiosely bellowing how, earlier that day, he had told off his boss, really let him have it, made him look like a total idiot, also explaining why he wasn't able to buy anybody any more drinks for the rest of the day, and would somebody please buy him one. Then he insisted that everyone he bumped into fire him. Even Jay got into the act when his turn came up; he was just in that kind of mood. Two women had climbed onto the pool table and were kicking and clawing each other, yanking each other's hair and shrieking wildly in mutual protest. It was the first time Jay had seen the filthy table actually put to use, and the game was a sellout:

Pull out her hair!

We don't care!

We don't care!

Pull out her hair!



We don't care!

Pull out her hair!

Pull out her hair!

We don't care!

The pervasiveness of Julia's' villainy had sucked Jay into its web of evil, and he joined in the chant as he filtered his way back to the bar. The alcohol had punched his clock and was now hard at work as well. He absolutely, positively had to get out of there and started asking people when they were planning to leave, the most humane response being delirious laughter. He looked for the exit; he couldn't even see it, it was so smoggy, and absently considered the possibility that he wasn't even looking in the right direction. He squinted his eyes, scanning the room for a window to check on the weather. He hadn't seen one, although he was all but certain that any window at Julia's, if there was such a thing, surely would be far too fogged-over to see through anyway. It didn't help Jay's state of mind when an elderly woman, apparently suffering from some sort of claustrophobic hysteria, started squealing, "Get me outta here! Get me the hell outta here!" to a sneering hoard of apathy of which Jay found himself in the midst. Jay cupped his ears and shut his eyes tight but it was no use, he could still feel it. Julia's had a way of infiltrating one's very soul, and he shuddered at the thought. He had to stop and think; when all else fails, just stop and concentrate for a moment, it had always worked before. He wondered what time it was, he hadn't seen a clock, either. He had no idea, no ideas, no ideas at all. No phone, no checks, no towels ... it was useless, he couldn't think. There wasn't enough air to think. He opened his eyes in time to witness the unemployed man picking a fight with one of the urinal beasts, then both of them. It wasn't going well for the man Jay had "fired" just moments prior. Brownton was all but having sex with another elderly woman on top of the bar, the bartender craned over them, hands on hips, snickering under his breath. The guy with the silly grin on his face finally returned downstairs with a different, sillier grin on his face, his naughty girl's jeans ripped at the pockets, her arms flung about his shoulders, stumbling behind him. More jeers. More filth. More Julia's.

Jay couldn't take it anymore. No matter what the weather was like he was going to leave, that was all there was to it. He didn't care anymore. He made the conscious decision that he would absolutely prefer the sousing out there -- the lesser of two evils, he was sure.

"Hey Jay."

"What! Oh, Brantley ... wow, Brantley. Listen, man, ya gotta help me out, I gotta get outta here. It's real important, I think I'm gonna be sick, ya know? My head ... I'm kinda fuzzy, my head's kinda fuzzy and it's not just the booze, I think. Here, lemme buy ya one, pal. Same thing? ... HEY! OLD MAN!" He positioned some grimy fingers in his mouth, whistled as loud as he could, clapping his hands simultaneously. "HEY, YA OLD GOAT, GET YER LOUSY ASS DOWN HERE!!! ... ya gotta know how'da talk ta these guys. God, it's boilin' in here, don't you think it's hot in here, Brantley? God, I'm sweatin' like hell. I knew I shoulda stayed out there, in my car, I mean. I knew it. Damn. Doesn't anybody ever leave this place, for chrissake? What is it about this place, Brantley? The damn place is packed. C'mon, Brantley, you're a smart guy, why's this God-forsaken joint so damn packed? ... OH! ... yeah, hey, mister bartender, sir ... two more, here ... make mine a triple this time, it's my last one, and ... ah, what the hell, get one for yourself, ya old goat."

The bartender snorted a laugh that reminded Jay of a Peter Lorre character in an old movie he'd seen when he was a kid, but crueler. Jay fitfully drummed his fingernails on the bar waiting for their drinks, peripherally noticing a flat-out beautiful woman, about his age, with long, wavy blond hair and very nice figure, standing alone, perched over the jukebox, pounding on it with her fists. He turned to face her directly. She really was beautiful. He realized he was staring at her but found himself not looking away. She was so ... too ... too something, she was too something for the place. Jay was at a rare loss for words, as he watched her shake the old machine, whining, "Not fair! It's just not fair!"

Jay felt sorry for her but knew he didn't have any change. Still, he wanted to do something for her; he didn't know what she drank. Pondering, he watched a man whose eyes were teeming with lewdness slither up behind her. Jay looked down, he couldn't watch any more. He didn't want to see it. The very thought of what might happen to the poor woman next jarred Jay back into the reality of his situation, where he was, how much he hated the place, not to mention his car, the weather ... but he couldn't help himself.

"Who is she, Brantley?" he indicated over his shoulder, knowing full well that Brantley had been staring at her, too, as the bartender delivered their round.

"I don't know," was the answer. "Hard to tell." Brantley looked again. "Looks like ... maybe ... naw, I don't know. I thought it was somebody's sister, but now I don't know. Does it really matter?"

Jay guzzled about half of his triple and watched as the man crept closer to the woman, his wretched body coiled to attack. Jay's heart sank; a potential positive in a day glutted with negatives, and he was to be just another spectator. The man slapped a soiled hand on her shapely hip and whispered something in her ear, prompting her to instinctively whirl around, bringing her face-to-iniquitous-face with her aggressor. She doesn't look interested, Jay was guessing, a flicker of hope spiking his own animal urges. She quickly, impulsively flung herself away from the man, violently kicking at the jukebox. Jay stiffened as the man rudely jerked her back around to face him, savagely slapping her face several times. The beautiful woman emitted a shrill gasp and slapped him back, once, very hard, and immediately turned to leave. Jay shot up out of his bar stool but didn't go anywhere, as the man snatched the woman by the arm with one hand, reaching under his shirt and pants with the other.

"Brantley, that guy's got a knife!"

"What?"

"Him! That guy! He's got a knife!"

"No ..."

"Yes! Look!"

"Can't be. Must be mistaken. Gotta be the booze. I don't even know how you can see anything in here ..."

"Oh my God! He stabbed her! He just stabbed her, for chrissake!"

"Aw, come on ..."

"Brantley!"

"I thought you were gonna take off."

"There, he did it again! Right there, damn it, draggin' her behind the pool table! Brantley, for God's sake!"

"Look, Jay, if you're gonna try to go ..."

"Isn't anybody gonna do something?"

"... a guy just came in ..."

"What guy?!"

"... I guess it's snowin' pretty hard ..."

Jay blinked hard. Was he the only one who saw it? Why was everybody looking at him? He hadn't done anything. The woman had been murdered, he watched it happen. Shock. Disbelief. He shook his head hard, trying to shake out whatever cobwebs had settled there, officially declaring himself drunk. Guy ... what guy? Snow ... snow? My God, that's right, he'd forgotten, somebody had told him that; who told him that? The cold. It had evidently gotten much colder outside, the rain ... no, snow. Snow. Cold. It was hard to imagine, where he was now. The thought of it made him wince, the way he always did whenever the sun came out after a fresh coating of clean, white snow. Jay tried to imagine what Julia's might look like from the outside on such a day.

"A ray of darkness in the light," he muttered under his breath.

"What was that?" asked Brantley.

"Huh? Oh ... nothing, just ... you're right, I'd better hurry up."

Brantley raised his glass. "Best of luck."

The exact second Jay's glass toasted with Brantley's the room went completely black. Terrific, power outage, that's what we need, thought Jay amid the screams and confusion of utter lightlessness. The sound of shattering glassware and flesh colliding with flesh added impetus to the escalating panic as Jay groped for Brantley; Brantley had matches. Somebody had to have some matches, the damn place was filthy with smoke. Brantley was nowhere. Mass hysteria. Jay could hear punches landing through the wailings, he was getting pushed and shoved around, was that a gunshot? He slumped under his barstool, kneeling in the mire, perspiration streaming off his forehead, cursing without thought.

Ineluctable modality. Those were the words. Ineluctable modality. Brantley was right. There was no such thing as fate, only this stinking inferno. The volume was deafening. Fire near his feet, somebody's cigarette ... Fire! Foot's on fire! Pandemonium was company, he raced everywhere and anywhere, colliding with anyone and everyone. Exploding imprisonment. Above the bedlam, Jay was able to single out the distinctively ominous laughter of the bartender, providing a sinister counter-melody to the room's extreme dissonance. More sparks had begun to flame but it was still far too dark to see anything clearly, Julia's wearing a giant cloak of hysteria as the mayhem raged on, one abominable bar's furor the order of the hour. Jay was petrified. He screamed as loud as he could but nothing came out. His body was numb. His mind craved death.

"Just lay back."

"Where am I?"

"Shhh."

"What happened?"

"You passed out."

"Where am I?"

"Upstairs."

"I don't know you ..."

"Shhh ... just lay back. You hit your head pretty hard."

Jay tried to focus. I can't be dead, he thought, I can still hear Julia's. He stared straight up above him. Two lit tapered candles, set on shelves above each side of his head, provided the only light in the room, as an incongruently calm, pleasant-looking woman tended to a wound on his forehead amid the flickering dimness, casting a serene reflection onto Jay's greatly altered and confused mind. His body reeked ... or maybe that was her? It didn't matter. He was upstairs. On a bed. Upstairs. Heat rises, he remembered. He wondered how long he'd been out. The commotion downstairs raged on.

"Does this hurt?"

"Huh?"

"Are you feeling better?"

"Yes." He had a terrible headache.

"Good. Very good."

"I need to get to my car."

The woman tenderhearted a smile and whispered, "I'm afraid that ..."

"No no, see, you don't understand. I have got to get to my car."

He sat up clumsily, nearly falling over. He was still drunk. She helped him sit up straight, dabbing at his forehead with a foul-smelling damp rag, Jay not even wanting to know how its dampness had been so achieved. His head hurt. He laid back down.

"I'm so glad you're feeling better," breathed the woman, the old goat's snigger still easily deciphered through the downstairs din. "My prayers have been answered."

Prayers. Jay studied the woman. Prayer. Julia's. It was all wrong.

"What did you say?"

"I prayed for you not to die," she said, inching closer. "I stayed right here, I never left your side."

The woman leaned over Jay, gently placing her hands on his chest, gazing caringly into his eyes. "I don't like to see you suffer," she comforted, methodically unbuttoning his top shirt button. "You needed someone and I was here. Only too happy to help, you can be certain of that." Another button. And another.

Jay couldn't move. His brain wasn't functioning properly. It seemed like he should stop her but his body, his very being, defied him. "What are you doing?" he asked stupidly.

She had his shirt completely open and was massaging and kissing his chest. Her healthy feminine form cast an eerie shadow between the gently rolling waves of candlelight above him, rendering Jay in total darkness. Her hands felt cool on his body, it felt good, and he didn't dislike the faint scent of damp ashes emanating from her lips.

"I want you to pray with me," she said, never looking up.

"What ... you ..."

With gentle deftness, she unhooked the top of Jay's trousers and slid her hands behind his back, caressing his buttocks. She passionately began to inch her kisses down his torso, the cool touch of her shivery lips sending chills throughout Jay's body.

"Let's pray together," she purred. "You can do that for me, can't you, Jay?"

Lust.

Repulsion.

Repulsion.

Lust.

"First we'll pray and then we'll ..."

Jay felt his insides erupt. He sat up violently.

"No!" he blasted, knocking her sprawling off the bed and onto the floor. "Get away from me! You just stay away from me! That ... that's enough!" He scrambled to the door, flinging it open violently, allowing Julia's all too familiar sensual implosion into his soul. He bounded down the stairs, three at a time, deep into the heart of Julia's, where absolutely nothing had changed. Bodies were screaming, bleeding, vomiting, frantically racing in every direction, in an inevitable collision course with anything in their path. More than a few poor souls were down, mucked onto the floor, some moving, some not. The fog of the room was even thicker, smoggier, the stench more vile than ever. Jay took in a deep breath of the searing, dead air and aimed himself in the general direction of where he thought the exit might be, bulling a path past the jukebox, which seemed to be functioning again, playing the same song as before, Jay recognized, from a record which obviously had sustained a bad scratch while he'd been upstairs:

... bruise you,

... bruise you,

... bruise you,

... bruise ...

Jay had to fight his way through the bloody war but was severely determined, wrestling and punching his way. "Gotta have air! Gotta have some air!" he wailed before getting manhandled into the edge of the bar, knocking the breath out of him.

"Don't forget to sign your tab, Mr. Stevenson," leered the bartender, emitting the most sustained, malicious laugh Jay had ever heard.

"Sign it yourself, ya old goat!" blurted Jay upon regaining his wind, at long last feeling for and reaching the door with one last effortful lunge. His body laid up against the door; it felt good, the tease of the outside chill against the door, then through to his body. He allowed the tiniest of grins to infiltrate his soul, savoring the moment, a moment of satisfaction, of relief, of finality. With great emphasis he pounded on the door once, very hard, then spun around, surveying the exploding destruction that lay before him, as if this was one nightmare he would never want to forget. He dramatically took one large step back into the room, held his arms straight out, fingers spread wide, and trumpeted the only words that came to his mind:

"GENERAL ... PARALYSIS ... OF THE INSANE!"

Satisfied that he had adequately spoken his piece, had actually had the final word and, in some small way, having avenged his horrible imprisonment, Jay reached for the door handle with a bruised and filthy hand.

The door would not budge.

He tried again, again in vain. Over and over he pushed, shoved, shouldered, and pounded, but the door did not move. Exhausted in every way humanly possible, he leaned forward with his arms and hands flat on the door, banging his head against it several times.

"Snowed in, Mr. Stevenson," laughed the bartender horrifically, ripping up Jay's tab, ejecting the confetti into the midst of Julia's with an underhand toss. "Do sit down and enjoy yourself, looks like you might be our guest for awhile." And more malicious laughter, the complete lack of humanity, already quite successful in sucking Jay into its wretched cocoon of sin, adding fuel to the heightening assault of mockery.

Jay dragged his drained and drunken body a few steps back into the room, collapsing in a sewer of blood and ashes at the end of the bar, sobbing in uncontrollable spasms amid the jeers and cat-calls.

"God, please, no more! No more!" he lamented, straining to hear a shout in the street, anybody or anything that could help. But there was nothing, no one, not a soul that had any chance of helping him now. Not even his imagination, his lifeline, his only hope, was able to venture outside Julia's' impenetrable walls now, as he lay wallowing in the putridness, hopelessly repeating, "Please, God, no more! No more!"

But he knew there would be more. Much more.

Article © Michael Price. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-11-05
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
2 Reader Comments
Sand
11/11/2012
04:48:16 AM
Here was a situation, and a choice. And another situation, and another choice. Each subsequent decision sees hooks set into Jay's existence, and the less he struggles to free himself, the deeper he falls. Bravo!
Anonymous
12/01/2012
11:09:39 AM
I, too have been to that bar, knew "those people." Stayed too long. Never went back. Still alive, writing. Very good story. Pretty sure I saw the author at Julia's.
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