by K. J. Stevens
We live in Seven Corners. Our small town with its narrow weather-beaten roads. Broken concrete, sunken cobblestones, crumbling asphalt. Streets, avenues, trails, and bridges leading to, from, and across Lake Huron, The Thunder Bay River, and their streams. Along these roads stand tall, solid houses. Some of them two-hundred years old with peeling paint, broken shingles, and wooden floors that creak and sigh. Our people watch the world pass by through large, tired windows. Dirty glass panes that have been melting slowly, invisibly over time, so that they've become thicker at the bottom than at the top. A lot like the people living in these houses, shuffling their heavy feet, taking for granted the solid foundations beneath them.
Seven Corners feels safe. Too safe. Never had a murder. Don't have much crime. We are quiet folks, living quiet lives in a lake shore town. Once, we were loggers. Now, we work in factories, or don't work at all. Paper mill. Cement plant. Steel mill. The Thunder Bay River brings ships in and sends ships out. Lake Huron rises and falls. It works with the river moving people, goods, our lives, as best it can. Those things it cannot handle, it sinks and the deep cold water, consumes. Besides shipwrecks, the only time Seven Corners has made any headlines was when Newsweek listed it as one of the top ten places to live, if you're an alcoholic. But I'm not sure we're all drunks. I think our headlining has to do with the churches we've forgotten, the gods we've lost, and the way we've given up on love. We don't know what runs deep because we've never plunged into it. There's no need to drop an anchor and go diving when you're drifting in the shallows, happy to be floating over a bottom you can see. Me, and my friends, Jake and Kerry, meet up day after day, to drink at Sammy's Bar. Five dollar pitchers from ten to midnight. Pearl Jam, The Doors, and Janis Joplin on the jukebox. There are other artists, but we don't care. Why should we? We know what we like and we like where we are. In a ratty old booth drinking Summit Pale Ale. "Suckers are runnin' in Pollock Creek," Jake says, elbows on the table, both hands on his beer. Kerry is playing with her hair, and it smells good, like she's just showered, "Jake, why do you say it like that?" "That the suckers are runnin'? Because they are. I saw them tonight in Pollock Creek." "See, you said it again." I was wondering when Kerry would come to this. Introducing us to the knowledge she's gaining from attending OGCC, Oak Grove Community College. For three months, she's been driving to Oak Grove City. Two hours there and two hours back, once a week, to learn all she can about life. The good and bad. The right and wrong. Kerry takes a long drink, then lights a cigarette. "Jake, why do you have to say Pollock? Can't you just call it a creek?" They both look at me. I don't want to the conversation to go where it's headed, but I don't want it to end. We've always called it Pollock Creek. Not to make fun of Polish folks, but because that's how we read the creek's sign. Pollock Creek. And for as long as I can remember the land around the creek has belonged to a Polish family. The Jaskowlski's. "Kerry, don't go off on Jake," I say, waving my hand over the room. "We're not here to talk about anything, but this." Kerry smiles, "And what is this, Aden?" She looks very pleased to have gotten a reaction. "This, is us in a booth, drinking."
"Ah yes," she begins, "The boys drowning sorrows before they even rise." Jake smiles then says, "I'm not drowning sorrows. I feel good. And for your information, Kerry, we call it Pollock Creek because that's its goddamned name." "And that too!" Kerry shouts and points at us. Jake's rolling his eyes, sliding his glass around in wet circles.
"Aden, what the fuck is she talking about?"
"And that too!" Kerry shouts again.
"Jake, Kerry's saying that we're not being politically correct by saying Pollock. She's saying we haven't got any respect for god. And, she's saying that we swear too much."
Jake nods. He raises his glass, "I respect the big man. Me and god got a lot in common. After all, we're both carpenters."
This is true. Jake is a carpenter. In fact, he's so good at it that instead of going to college after high school, or taking over his old man's shoe store, he became the town's best woodworker. He's done well enough to buy a trailer on the river, build a workshop, and drive around a big van full of tools and wood. Jake and God; creators both.
"To carpenters!" I say, raising my glass. We wait for Kerry to raise hers, but she snubs us.
Jake downs his beer then slams the glass on the table. "It is a shame, Kerry. Nobody givin' a shit about god no more. It's a shame. But god bless him, anyway! He's sure got the suckers runnin' in Pollock Creek."
Jake fills our glasses then Kerry raises hers. Her drinking-hand pinky is sticking high into the air.
"Here's a toast," she says, "to people opening their minds, to being challenged, to loving, and to seeing beyond one's own little world."
Me and Jake raise our glasses, pinky fingers reaching toward the heavens. The three of us clank glasses together and drink to the bottom.
"Well Kerry, on top of that I'd like to say whether it be Pollock Creek, Fairy Lane, Black Avenue, or Devil's Trail, I hope that I, a miserable, godless, uneducated honky, will always be invited to ride by your side."
Jake drinks then sits smiling into the round flickering light above our booth. Kerry is quiet. She smokes and smokes, and twirls her hair.
I'm sipping beer, breathing in dirty air, but I'm feeling good. One pitcher into the night, Eddie Vedder is singing that he's still Alive, and I'm glancing at a blonde who's playing pool. Her hair is straight and shoulder length. Her body is slender, but curvy. Her cheeks are dimpled when she smiles, and she's smiling a lot. Twice so far, I think she's smiled at me, but it doesn't seem like a friendly smile. It feels new and frightening. Like she knows more than everybody else. Like at any moment, the old roof of Sammy's Bar is going to cave in and she knows she'll be the only one that escapes.
"That dame's a scorcher," Jake says, his attention moving from booth light to blonde.
Kerry takes a long drag and blows thick smoke, "A dame? Dammit Jake! You're just a sick little boy, aren't you?"
I take my eyes off the blond and chime in, "Jake's not sick. He just went from staring at one light to staring at another."
I nod in the blonde's direction, "And, Miss Kerry, I think you forget that the big man upstairs is the one who created that little angel."
Jake laughs, then drinks. Beads of water drip from his glass. Kerry twirls hair madly and smokes hard. She glares at me. Her eyes are dark pools. It always looks like she's about to cry. Seeing Kerry in just the right flickering bar light makes me sad and looking at her stirs something within me. Not love, not desire, but some sort of recognition. A faint breath of deja-vu. When it comes I avoid her eyes and I drink and drink, and drink some more.
I stand up and dig into my pockets for change.
"What are you doing?" Kerry asks.
"Going to the jukebox. Any requests?"
Jake pipes up, "Play some country music!"
"I can't, buddy. They don't have good old honky-tonk on the jukebox anymore."
"Racist bastards," Jake grumbles then drinks.
Kerry rises, "You guys are insensitive assholes! I can't even drink out of the same pitcher anymore."
"Why not?" Jake asks, topping his glass.
"Because I don't want to get infected with stupidity."
Kerry glides away to the bar. I shout to her, "You want me to play something for you?"
Over her shoulder, she flips me the bird.
Here I am at Sammy's Bar. I'm 30 years old heading out of one prime and into another. It's getting harder to come to Sammy's and drink, and talk, and believe that things are fine when more and more I realize that I'm nothing like the man I thought I'd be.
Once, I fished the waters, hunted the fields, and walked the trails, board walks, and break walls. Birds singing spring to life. Boats summer sailing. Leaves bleeding into autumn. Ice and snow silencing waves. These were the things I recognized and knew. They gave me life, hope, and discipline. One day, I knew I would grow up, hold a strong pen, and share words that would alter the course of existence. Mine, Seven Corners, and the people far away, reading Newsweek. But, somewhere along the broken road, I lost sight of the solid white lines and I stopped moving. I wandered off the shoulder into a swamp I'd never met before. Sinking in the coming darkness, I stopped and took a drink as the last bit of light fell away. I drank so deep so long that I forgot about living and direction. Desperate, I kept drinking and drinking, until the desperation was gone, and the hope of finding the person I thought I'd be was lost, dead, or sleeping.
These days, I skim the surface from daylight to darkness. I sleep. I work. I drink. And so it goes. Sammy's Bar, me, Jake and Kerry. Drinking and drinking again.
Sammy's is usually dead, but tonight there are extra bodies. College kids wearing college sweatshirts and college hats. Central Michigan University, U of M, and even some good old OGCC. I can't imagine what they've all come to Seven Corners for. There are other places closer to where they're from. Clubs with hips shaking and bodies rocking to pounding bass. Cover-charging, three-level joints, serving Jell-O-shots in plastic cups, or watered down booze in test tubes. All of it sold by beautiful waiters and waitresses flirting for dollars.
At the jukebox, in front of me, are two girls flipping through music. Long dark hair pulled into pony tails. Stinking of perfume, they are wearing identical red sweatshirts. On the back of the shirts it reads, Success is getting it. Greeks get it.
"This place has awful music," one of them says, "It's so old."
"I know, look at this. The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Pearl Jam? Didn't their lead singer shoot himself like 20 years ago?"
"If not, he should have."
I can barely stand them, but I wait.
"Look at this crap," one says, as she flips through the music. "You'd think they'd at least have something from the last decade!"
"Right, look around this place. Losers with bad hair everywhere."
I move closer to them, jingling change.
"Why did they ever choose this sorry-assed town for a Greek get-a-way?"
"Prime country for redneck adventures, that's why. Camping, canoeing, fishing, and horseback riding."
I can't stand it, so I move between them.
"Excuse me, is it okay if I get in there and play some music?"
They turn and look at me. Very pretty girls. Experts at camouflage and concealment. Made up nice with Revlon and Maybelline. They scowl at me then smile at each other.
"Excuse us," one of them says, "That's what we're trying to do. Wait your turn."
They turn back to the jukebox. I stand there, steaming. They flip through the songs over and over again, and then talk quietly about me.
"Nice goat-tee, loser."
"Yeah, didn't flannel shirts go out like 20 years ago?"
I stand. I wait.
"What's that cologne he's wearing, anyway?"
"I think he overdosed on Old Spice."
I step closer to them then feel a hand on my arm. It's Jake. He looks at the girls, gives me an elbow, and winks. He hands me my glass.
"What's taking so long?"
I gulp the beer and burp as loud as I can. The girls groan with disgust.
"I've been waiting for these two bright young ladies to finish their musical selections. However, it's become apparent to me that they're having a most difficult time."
"Most difficult?" Jake asks.
"Yes. Most difficult."
The girls turn and look at us. The front of the shirts says the same as the back. Success is getting it. Greeks get it. Me and Jake move closer and squint at the writing on their chests.
"I really don't think they get it, Jake."
Jake slurps at his beer, belches then says, "No Aden, they get it. All those sorority chicks get it. A lot."
"You losers," they grumble, as they shove through us and walk away.
"Just remember ladies!" Jake yells after them, "Greece wasn't built in a day!"
He takes my change and puts it in the jukebox. He punches in the numbers. We've been to it so many times that we have the music memorized. #2717 - Black by Pearl Jam. #4811 - People Are Strange by The Doors. #2094 - Take a Little Piece of my Heart - Janis Joplin.
Kerry is back at the booth, twirling hair and smoking. I see she's ordered another pitcher. Me and Jake move through the crowd toward her. Smoke, laughter, beer everywhere, as I bump against bodies I feel I'm losing bits and pieces of myself to everyone else.
"Have fun flirting?" Kerry asks.
I sit next to Kerry and put my arm around her. "Those were a couple of grade-A bitches. Not like you, Kerry. You're a nice girl."
Jake stretches out in the booth. He puts up his feet and yawns.
"Kerry's not nice," he says.
"That's right," Kerry answers.
She moves out from under my arm.
"I'm a bitch. I just haven't persuaded anyone that I'm bitchy enough for them."
I nudge Kerry's leg with mine and rest my elbows on the table. She smells so damned good that I just want to bury my face in her hair and breathe. But I push the feeling aside because I know how empty it would make me feel.
"Those young ladies weren't bitches at all, Kerry. In fact, they were quite nice. Right Jake?"
"Fucking queens," Jake says flatly.
I stare into my glass. I'm thinking about how it won't be long before I'm to the bottom again, when I notice a foamy face on the surface of the beer. Elongated head. Hollow eyes. A wide grin. Something stirs within my gut, but I lift my glass and drink the face away until my stomach warms with beer.
"What about your little angel at the pool table?" Kerry asks, "I bet she's the real deal. Pretty, funny, and smart."
"I bet she's a goddamned genius," Jake says, sliding his glass toward me, nodding at the pitcher, "A goddamned genius, like one of those OGCC girls."
I top our glasses, but stay silent. Kerry says nothing. Jake talks more about the sucker run. He'll go tonight, after the bar, and shine the water, he says. He's got a hard hat and it's got a flashlight mounted on top. He's hoping he'll see a dying run in the dark because if they're running steady at night, they won't run long. Just some quick lovin', Jake says. And he's got me convinced that all the swimming upstream has got to be more about being together, than about reproduction. The truth, Jake says, is that fish love like men.
Eddie Vedder croons through the speaker above our booth, "...I take a walk outside, I'm surrounded by some kids at play. I can feel their laughter, so why do I sear?"
"I'll drink to that," Kerry says, raising her glass, "To kids playing and souls searing."
"Fuck that," I say, "There aren't any souls searing."
Kerry shakes her head, "But there are kids playing."
"Bullshit. Let's drink to something else."
"To fishing!" Jake shouts.
The three of us raise and rattle glasses. We drink, sip, and spill. I look at the pool table. There isn't anyone playing anymore. The blonde is in a corner. She's talking with her pony-tailed Greek friends.
"Wanna play pool?" Jake asks.
Kerry glares at him, "You boys and your games. Why can't we sit here and converse?"
We shrug our shoulders at her then rise from the booth. My vision whirls. I try to focus on Jake as he carries the beer toward the pool table, but he looks likes like a different man. His dirty jeans. His faded and torn black tee-shirt. His steel-toed work boots with laces dragging behind. I feel like I'm someplace else, moving around in someone else's body. I slam my beer then walk to the pool table.
When I bend over to put quarters in the table slots there are already quarters there, waiting. I stand and look around at the Greek beauties before me. Most of them have their backs toward the table. Some look through me as they talk on cell phones. The two girls in red sweatshirts glance my way as they talk to the blonde.
Bar etiquette says I am to wait for the person who has the quarters up, as they have control of the table.
"Is this an open table?" I ask, loud enough so everyone can hear.
One of the pony-tailed Greek girls turns toward me. She hisses like an angry cat.
"Does it look like anybody's playing?"
I put my quarters back in my pocket then shove the ones that are already there into the table. Balls fall and rumble. The blonde steps away from her group.
"Those are mine."
"I asked if the table was open."
"You didn't ask me. You stepped over here like you owned the place, and took the table."
I look to Jake and Kerry. They smile and watch.
"Well with the amount of time and money we spend here, we sort of do own the place."
"That's something to be proud of."
"I'd rather be here, playing pool with my friends, than hanging out with Greek beauties and bitches."
Taking a pool stick from the rack, I call to Jake and Kerry.
"Who wants to break?"
The blonde's waiting, but I walk by her and start to rack the balls.
Jake comes over and stands beside the blonde.
"I'm Jake. That's Kerry. And that's Aden, but I see you two have already met."
"I'm Maggie. Those are my quarters. So, this is my table."
Maggie comes over and takes the stick away from me.
Kerry twirls her hair and lights another cigarette. Jake walks to the bar and orders a round of shots.
I center the balls and look at Maggie. She isn't wearing any makeup, or at least, very little. She has pleasant green eyes and thin lips. She leans over the table readying to break. A silver cross falls out of her shirt and dangles from her neck. It spins and sparkles, then brushes against the green felt.
"My quarters. My table. I break," Maggie says.
Kerry, blowing smoke like a chimney, steps beside me and hands me a shot glass. Jake gives one to Maggie.
Jake shouts, "Give us a toast, Aden!"
The small glass feels big in my hand. The place buzzes and revolves around me. Beer mugs, barstools, booths, and drunks. I am the center of my own dysfunctional world. There's a long, silent pause in the jukebox play so I take a deep breath.
"To our gracious host, Miss Maggie. To her quarters, to her table, to her game."
I say this, but hear it too. The words come out and I hear them as if I'm a bystander. My voice groggy. The words forced and overly emphasized. I'm an actor, doing it all for show. I look hard around the place, until my eyes see me in the mirror behind the bar. A boyish looking man. A red-nosed stranger. Heavy under the chin. Only 30 years old, but melted down so much that I'm thicker at the bottom than the top.
I see Maggie behind me. She is moving toward me. The silver cross shines and flickers and she touches it with her fingers. I feel like I've seen her thousands of times.
Jake is swearing up and down that suckers are running in Pollock Creek. That by tomorrow or the next day, they'll have reached Indian Creek. He can't wait to do some spear-chuckin', he says. Fishing like the Indians used to do.
The words are heavy and ugly, but Kerry has started laughing. She's with Jake now, forgetting me, and stepping out of her OGCC education. She's back into the place we've always been, Sammy's Bar and Seven Corners. Drinking away at quiet desperation until it feels like contentment. Numbing reality so that the true lines of happiness are impossible to see.
Maggie is close. Close enough to touch. She smells like a spring morning. I watch the mirror as she reaches for me. Her hand moves gently onto my shoulder.
"I'll let you break," Maggie says.
At the table, I stand staring at the triangle of balls. Colors and numbers. Organization and form given to small spheres. The balls float on the green felt sea, waiting silently for the for the break. My guts roll over and around so that my body tingles. I look down at my shaking hands. The shape, the skin, the scars. They all look strange to me. It's like I'm something from another world trapped inside an aging body and suddenly, I know I need to do things differently in order to begin my escape.
Jake and Kerry take down more shots. The Greeks order rounds and chant phrases full of foreign words. The pitcher is full of beer. My glass is full of air. Both are waiting for me to join them. To fill them. To empty them. To press my lips to the hallowed glass and drink, as if consuming an offering.
Before I break, I look at the mirror behind the bar. Maggie is in it again, watching me as she orders two drinks. Through the smoke, over the bottles and beer taps, she smiles and winks at the reflection that is me. He is young and tall, broad-shouldered and strong, resembling hope and the person I'd thought I'd be.