Read the first ones before you read this. The link is on the sidebar. Or not, of course... I could give two shits.
I get directions to the bar, then return to the hotel to shower and shave, trying to look somewhere near human. I wipe my face off in the bathroom with a towel as my smoke curls up from my fingertips. The tiles are breaking on the floor, and the walls that were once white are now colored a grimy tan. I close my eyes for a minute, lay back on the bed and stare at the ceiling that looks like the top of a lemon meringue pie. When I'm in places like this, I imagine what has happened here before, what terrible things went on in the last thirty years in this very room that I'll never know about. My imagination wanders, and scenes run through my head like a movie... a man with a stripper, doing lines of yak off of the table until they're both so fucked up that he thinks it's a good idea to beat her ass instead of paying her, and she's lying a bloody mess on the floor between the two beds... a panicked man with a blonde beard wearing a red flannel trying to hide a gun in the drawer of the night table, next to the King James Bible...smoking cigarette after cigarette and shaking nervously.... a formally beautiful woman with stringy hair tying a ripped piece of a shirt around her arm, furiously working to get that needle in the arm to make the ripping feeling in her stomach go away....
This happens to me all the time. I see ghosts, memories, things that may or may not have happened, things that I know occurred things, things that I wish occurred. It used to happen in my living room; nights when I would watch my ex-girlfriend walk out the door for the last time as I slept soundly, ignoring, as I always do, everyone else's trials and tribulations in favor of taking care of myself. I would see dead friends standing next to me when I would have lonely cigarettes outside parties, and they would be leaning on railings, grinning, looking out into the woods. Sometimes I see happy things, good memories where my grandfather and I would sit out on the deck of his massive house and watch the bats fly over at dusk searching for food. I would worry that they were going to attack me, like they do in the movies, and he would laugh at my goofy fears, signs of a dumb kid who had a lot to learn.
Other times, I see the black truck flipped over, blood all over, the piece of glass lodged in my cheek, my eyes rolling around. I didn't know what to do when I came to, so I lit a cigarette, sitting there upside down in the crushed cab of the pickup.
It always ends the same way, with caskets going into the ground, and roses on the lid as I kiss my hand and lay it on the gray metal, again, and wonder when He's coming to collect from me. That is normally the end of my wanting to remember anything, and the ghosts fade out.
I look at myself in the mirror, and even though I look better than I did ten minutes ago I still look like hell. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m sick. I think about doing some pushups to get my blood flowing, but I’m too damn tired. I need a beer.
I don’t want to attract attention to myself, and so I don’t put any gel in my hair, sticking with an old Red Sox hat with a broken brim that I’ve had for about ten years. As I’m walking out of the lobby, I ask the broad at the counter where the nearest bar is.
“Four miles west.”
West again. Of course. “OK. Is it a shithole?”
She says nothing, just gives me a dirty look. My Jersey accent is coming through, and the farther in I get, the less everyone seems to like it.
I head down some road that winds through the hills and climbs up for miles only to drop and wind again. I keep thinking I passed the fucking place, until I happen upon a house in the middle of the woods that has a big porch and a huge gravel parking lot off to the side, and the only thing that tips it off to me that it’s a bar is a neon "Budweiser" sign in the window. I pull in, get out of the car, and I hear loud blugrass rolling out. It slowly winds down, and again the lot is silent except for a howling in the distance that sounds like babies crying.
The porch creaks under my boots, and I open the screen door and then the heavy wooden door, and I’m seriously hoping that this is a bar and not some rednecks’ house that I’m walking into. My fears are allayed when I see a gray haired, ponytailed guy asking me for five dollars.
I pay him, then keep my head low as I walk to the far end and sit in the corner. The haggard bartender comes over, and I order three shots of whiskey and a beer.
“That’s five dollars,” she says with a toothy grin. Another ugly one. At least the beer is cheap though.
“Here," I say, handing her a ten. "The extra is for you.” She smiles at me and I cringe on the inside.
The stage is at the far end of the room running from wall the wall. There are tables set up in front of it, and we at the bar remain in the back. There’s a couple young guys who have ragged beards and sound like rednecks sitting next to me, and I can barely understand what the fuck they’re saying between the noise and their accents. It’s a constant reminder that I’m nearing Appalachia with every mile southwest I go, that accent. That, and the Denny’s that New Jersey got rid of a long fucking time ago.
The band is good, led by a tall man in a tan cowboy hat with a brown goatee. He is smoking through some Stevie Ray Vaughn song, and he plays it as well as the dead guitarist ever could. I am amazed. Some broad is dancing and screaming to the song, and she’s the only one on her feet in the place. I can’t tell if she’s black or white, and even whether it’s a “she” or not is up for grabs.
This is an old time bar, and this broad is definitely out of place. There are a lot of old hillbillies here, and it’s certainly not the kind of place I want to start a fight at. There’s a couple of guys with wearing blue flannels at the end of the bar, and they’re giving me looks that make it seem like they don’t like that I’m here. There are a lot of older people here, friends of the band or of the bar, and I am not safe here.
"You all got that same damn look, you know that? Them bewildered eyes... you’re all the same." The voice came from behind me.
“What?” I turn around.
There's a woman standing there who I didn't notice when I walked in. She seems like she might have once been beautiful, but that has long since left her.
“You heard me. All you boys from the East thinking that running out of your homes is gonna help something."
“The fuck do you know about me? Christ, you hillbillies are crazy.”
“Crazy? Maybe. But we know about people. We seen men like you. You’ll never be here again, but you’ve been here before ten, twenty times. It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen you. Once you’re gone, another one will come with another story. You can’t hide out here forever."
"Really? Thanks for the advice." I turn away, getting more pissed.
"Ghosts don’t get lost on these highways or in these hills. Sometimes, there just ain’t anywhere you can go. Sometimes they stalk you, and flood you. Other times they’ll just knock on the window of your hotel room and make you think that it’s a tree branch. They’re patient, you know? They got all the time in the world."
This broad is creeping me out, and as I walk away the hairs on my neck raise again. This whole fucking state is creeping me out. I knew that when I started driving out here, I should’ve listened to myself. I buy three more shots, and get lost in my head again as the music blares.
You should know that since I was little, I’ve hated the country. I know I said that before, but the reasons have changed as I got older. Now, I think that it’s too open, there’s too much space, too much room to get lost. Men can disappear out here, and that woman said something that I’d thought forever- the ghosts here don’t forget. There isn’t progress out here, there isn’t civilization, there aren’t bulldozers and buildings and things collapsing and being rebuilt and changing. There’s just woods; the same woods that were here, that have been here, the same woods that will always be here. They can talk to each other, they can tell the stories that we have forgotten. The ghosts wander aimlessly here.
The houses have seen the Civil War, some have seen the Revolution, some were hospitals for both. There have been ten or fifteen generations of men that have never left the same ten square miles, and there is a mysticism down here that we don't have back in New Jersey. These folks take their lore seriously, so seriously that sometimes it makes me wonder if the things are true.
I want to leave, but I’m less comfortable out there then I am in here. The band has filed offstage, and only the guy with the tan cowboy hat is left. He plays the guitar like it’s no one’s business, and right now all he has is an acoustic with him, and he’s sitting on a stool. His eyes are closed, and his goatee covers his mouth as he looks at the ceiling. Suddenly his head is back towards the ground, and he begins stomping his foot. The bar is still. He’s going into his own version of Johnny Cash’s “God is Gonna Cut you Down.” The black broad is still shaking her hips in accordance with the music, and is slowly backing over by me. She’s getting a little too close, and I stand up off my barstool. She’s singing.
She turns around towards the bar, grabs someone’s beer, and drinks whatever is left. When she puts it down I see there’s a cigarette in the bottom of the bottle.
She looks up and is mumbling, then looks straight into my eyes, her wild short afro soaked with sweat, singing, and it seems for a second that the whole bar is stomping along with the beat that the guitarist.
“As sure as God made black and white, what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.”
The hairs on my spine rise again, and I start backing away from this thing. She’s seething and staring, my head begins to hurt, and room begins to spin. All I can hear is the chorus, over and over, “You can run on for a long time…sooner or later God is gonna cut you down.” Everyone in the bar is staring at me and the bartender leans over, her ugly grin right next to my ear, and I hear he utter in a low whisper… “Guilty.”