A Tale of Hell

 

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by Phil Slattery

 

Abstractions

The last face Jack saw was the executioner’s as he slid the needle into Jack’s arm.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” said Jack.

“The jury decided that you did,” replied the executioner.

What seemed like several minutes passed while Jack, strapped to the gurney, sweated and waited, head throbbing with tension, watching the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead, until a black fog enveloped him.

He awoke standing naked holding two buckets overflowing with concentrated sewage.  Sweat mixed with grime and soot rolled down his arms. The atmosphere, a mixture of steam, tear gas, sulfur, and the smell of death, burned his throat and stung his eyes filling them with tears.  What little he could see glowed mottled orange and red. Thousands of naked men and women, covered in grime and sweat, cringed whimpering among jagged rocks or ran about in terror while lugging buckets of sewage, blood, or God knew what else.

A whip cracked across Jack’s back. “Move your ass!” came a shout out of nowhere.    Jack ran headlong with the buckets down a road of broken rock shoving his way through the throng. He stumbled and fell.  The buckets spilled.  The whip cracked. Jack tried to rise but the whip cracked again and drove him into the rock. “Move your ass! Move your ass!” Jack saw no one barking the order or wielding the whip, but the voice hurt his ears and the whip stung his face and shoulders. A trickle of blood ran down his chest. Jack leapt up and bounded over the rocks, buckets in hand, for several hundred yards.

Jack stumbled and fell again, scraping his knees and stomach. He gasped for air as he wiped the sweat and blood from his eyes. He could see that three more steps and he would have fallen over a cliff to drop twenty feet into a sea of lava. He dumped the few drops remaining in the buckets into the glowing surf. As Jack raised his face toward the horizon, he saw countless screaming men immersed to varying depths in the burning sea, some to their knees, some to their waists, some to their chins. In a few places he saw only arms whipping about above the surface.

A raw-boned man with wild eyes and a shaggy beard ran up to the edge and emptied his buckets into the lake.

“What is this place?” Jack shouted above the cacophony of hissing surf and the screams and wails of the damned.

“I don’t know its name, don’t know its name. No, don’t know its name. It’s where they send tyrants who sacrificed their nations for greed and power.  They’re all there. Yes, they’re all there.” The man scratched wildly at his arms and legs.

“I’m no tyrant.”

“If you were, you’d be in there.  Yes, you would. Yes, you would. What did you do?”

 “I killed some damned bartender, just same damned moron! Now I have to rot in hell!”

“Ah, nothing special. You’re just a slave, just a slave. Many souls come here for many crimes, some bad, some worse. The worse your crime, the worse your punishment. The worse. The worse.” He continued scratching and nodding and then he giggled.  “You’re the damned moron.  Yes, you are.  You’re the one who’s damned!”

A thin, middle-eastern man with a wheelbarrow full of what seemed to be pale leather ran up, dumped it into the lake, then ran off.

“What was that?”

“Serial killers. Yes, serial killers. They’re flayed everyday and at night the skin grows back. Very nasty. Nasty. Nasty.” The man now started clawing at his face.

Jack could see a bit better. The air was filled with drifting columns of oily smoke. Instead of a sky were countless stalactites. Millions of naked men and women carried buckets on stone causeways crisscrossing the glowing sea. Jack and the man stared at each other for a moment while others pushed through and unloaded.  Jack glanced around. “Why aren’t they beating us?”

The man switched back to scratching. “It’s the game, s’th’ game. They fuck fuck fuck with your mind as well as your body. Yes, they do.”

 Jack began to weep. “I’m going mad.”

“No. No. No.” The man laughed. “Madness is escape. They won’t allow it. You’ll never escape. You’ll simply pick up a few quirks like I have, like I have, like I have, but your mind will always be sharp as a tack. That’s the healing power of hell.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Who knows?  The last thing I remember was I was with Pickett’s division at Gettysburg.  We were storming the Yankee lines on top of a hill.  Grapeshot was tearing our lines apart. Grapeshot.  Grapeshot.  Grapeshot!”

“Who are you?”

The man started clawing again. “No. No names. They want that. They want that. If you know someone’s name, you’ll become friends. Then when he’s hurt, you’ll sympathize and you’ll hurt. Your suffering and pain will increase. Oh, it’ll increase.” He leaned his head straight back, looked at the ceiling, and closed his eyes, grimacing.  “It’ll increase. It’ll increase. It’ll increase.”

Whips cracked across their backs. They raced back down the road, stumbling, cursing, almost veering off the causeway and into the lake.

Jack ran for what seemed miles, an invisible whip snapping on his skin every time he slowed, until he came to a long line of the damned, waiting to dip their buckets in a hot spring of sewage. Invisible whips lashed their backs while invisible demons barked out the single mindless command, “Move your ass! Move your ass!” Pushing forward, Jack became locked deep in the crushing grip of the crazed mob crowding to fill their buckets at the spring. He was thrown down onto his stomach into the edge of the boiling filth with a dozen others of the whimpering damned.  Jack screamed and writhed and swept his buckets through the spring as he fought to the top of the slithering and clawing mass before being unexpectedly shoved out of the throng and into the open with his buckets less than half full just as a whip cracked across his back. Jack lurched forward into a run not knowing where to go, knowing only to run as long as he felt the lash of whips.  When the whips stopped, he emptied his buckets into the nearest edge of the lake.  When they cracked he fought his way through the mob to reach the nearest spring.   He ran back to the line, fought his way through, filled his buckets, and raced back. A trickle flowed out. Again and again he repeated the mindless process until he finally turned and shouted into the black void overhead, “Fuck you! Fuck you! I’m not going to play your game! What more can you do to me? Fuck you!”

Jack flailed about with his arms trying to punch invisible demons and smashed into something soft and warm to his right that let out a wild yell.

Suddenly the darkness fell and Jack bolted upright in his own bed. It was daylight, he was covered with sweat, and his girlfriend was shaking his arm, shouting, “Jack! You’re having a nightmare! Wake up! Wake up!”

Jack looked around. The sweat dripped off his forehead. He turned and saw Theresa staring at him with a bloody nose.  Tears flooded her eyes.  Jack couldn’t catch his breath and lay back into his pillow gasping. Theresa smacked him across the face and began pounding with both fists, “You bastard! What are doing punching me while I’m asleep? You bastard!”

Jack held up his hands to cover his face,  “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to.”

“What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry already. I was having a nightmare. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Theresa grabbed a Kleenex from the nightstand, held it to her nose, and tilted her head back. “What were you dreaming?”

“It was some weird-ass dream about carrying buckets of shit through hell.”

“Well, if anyone ever deserved to tote shit through hell it’s you. They’ve got the right man for that job.”

“Aw, c’mon, honey. How can they send a sweetheart like me to hell?”

“Because of your temper, Jack.  Your temper gets out of control.”

“Shit, honey, I said I’m sorry. What more can I do?”

“You can pay my doctor’s bill, that’s what you can do, you bastard.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to do that, honey. It’s just a nosebleed.”

“Nosebleed, my ass. It feels like it’s broken. You’re paying for my trip to the emergency room, you cheap bastard. If I have to have cosmetic surgery, you are paying for it too.”

“The hell I will. It was an accident.”

“It was your fault. You are paying.”

“Honey, I haven’t got the money right now. I’m up to my ears in debt.”

“Bullshit, Jack. You spent over a hundred bucks on dinner and a concert last night. You’re paying.”

Jack was afraid that if he didn’t pay for her nose job, he might lose her.  They had fought before, and she had threatened to leave before, but she had never walked out.  However, Jack had never seen her beside herself with rage as she was then.  This time, he thought, she might do it.  If she did leave him, they wouldn’t marry, and he would lose her inheritance and the connections that came with being part of her family. “I’m sorry, honey. You’re right as always. I’ll pay your bills. But first just lay back and let’s see if it feels better in a little while. We might not even need a doctor.”

After an hour the bleeding stopped, but Theresa’s nose was still sore and red. Jack placed an icepack on it and made some coffee while they waited to see if the swelling would go down. Jack was still trying to find a way to grovel sufficiently to please Theresa. “Tell you what, honey, let me fix you breakfast.”

“You’ve never fixed breakfast for me before. What’s up? You couldn’t beat me to death in my sleep, so now you’re going to poison me?”

Jack spoke firmly, the anger in him slowly rising.  “I never laid a hand on you, woman, though it’s not like I haven’t been tempted.”

Theresa’s eyes narrowed as she fixed them unblinking on Jack’s.  She looked as if she were bracing to be slapped.

“I’m sorry.  Let me calm down.  I didn’t mean that; I would never hit you. I honestly feel bad about bloodying your nose and I wish you would believe me.  All I ask is that you let me make it up to you. ”

“Well, then fix me lunch, because it’s almost noon.”

Biting his tongue to prevent worsening the situation, Jack pulled on his jeans and a t-shirt and headed for the kitchen.  His started to fix her favorite, a BLT, but when he turned on the gas burner, the blue flame and the whiff of burning gas brought out visions of thousands of emaciated men running helter-skelter screaming across the lava-filled seas of the underworld as invisible demons waded among them cracking invisible whips that ripped flesh like wet paper. Jack stood transfixed for a moment, sweating and gasping for air, engulfed in the vision, and then suddenly woke and remembered where he was.  He turned off the burner, put the bacon back into the refrigerator, and took out the pimento cheese, bread, and materials for two garden salads.

When lunch was ready he set the table and called Theresa. They ate in silence with Theresa, still nursing her anger as well as her nose, seldom saying anything to Jack other than to pass the salad dressing, and Jack halfheartedly trying to placate her.  When they finished, Jack put the leftovers in the refrigerator and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Theresa read the newspaper while holding a compress to her nose. Jack got an ashtray, book of matches, and a pack of cigarettes from the living room and, as he opened the pack, sat wondering what else he could do to help her get over her anger. He put a cigarette in his mouth and struck a match. The erupting match head startled him as he thought he saw a miniature man writhing in its flame. Theresa noticed Jack suddenly grimace and twitch, but said nothing and went back to her paper. Jack felt a cold sweat break out on his forehead, watched the flame for a second until the vision disappeared, then lit the cigarette and quickly blew out the flame.

For a couple of minutes they sat in silence, she nursing her nose, he smoking and concentrating upon a sunbeam that streamed across the table in a beautifully warm, yellow, diagonal line. It seemed as if there was an incredible amount of gentleness and softness in its very nature. He was fascinated not only by the sunbeam, but also by the fact that he had never noticed one this beautiful before. He couldn’t understand the change that made this possible. How could he have gone his entire life without noticing this miracle of nature? Light, which had no substance to speak of and born in the sun among an infinite sea of nuclear detonations, any one of which could have swallowed this world, hurtled across time and space at a rate barely conceivable by the greatest minds on this planet, penetrated our atmosphere and ended in a gentle nuance that brightened his spirit and felt as warm and loving as a mother’s caress on his skin. Now it seemed so blatantly obvious, he felt as if he had been a fool for his entire existence. Jack finished the cigarette and tossed it into the ashtray. “How’s the nose, honey? Is it feeling better yet?”

Theresa sniffled. “A little. But I’m still not forgiving you just yet.”

“Would an aspirin make you feel better, honey?”

“I’ve already looked. You’re out of aspirin.”

“Well, I’ll go get some.” Jack dressed then jumped in his corvette and made for the store a few miles away.

Through the kitchen window Theresa watched him drive off. “Why am I staying with him?” she muttered, “Why do I bother?  What am I getting out of this relationship besides an occasional orgasm?”

Jack pulled up to the convenience store and turned off the engine. He sat for a moment, wondering what was different about the day. The sunlight seemed to have a new quality about it, something he just couldn’t put his finger on. It seemed to be not only rich, golden and warm, as it is on especially lovely days, but it also seemed almost liquid and flowed about everything it touched in gentle currents. There was something surreal about the trees. There was a luxurious quality to the leaves that reminded him of cool, green velvet.  On the way the wind had poured through his open windows like a torrent of water from a mountain stream. He had felt as if he were swimming in a river of chilled chardonnay.  The store’s white wall blazed like the flame from an immense arc welder.  The red and green in its corporate sign were so rich it seemed as if the color were about to drip like fresh paint, although it was obvious that the sign was only colored plastic.

A dark, Persian face peered out from the store window with a look of curiosity then disappeared. A shudder swept down Jack’s spine. Jack couldn’t understand why he felt such heart stopping fear, and then remembered the dream. The clerk reminded Jack of the man pushing the wheelbarrow of flayed skins; it wasn’t him, but the resemblance was uncanny. “Bullshit”, Jack muttered.

Jack found it hard not to stare at the clerk as he entered and glanced around for the medicines section.  The clerk stared back, not saying a word and not smiling.  Jack suspected that the clerk was waiting to see if Jack stole anything. The suspicion irritated Jack. It made him feel dirty and for making him feel dirty, Jack hated the clerk.  Jack found the medicines section and snatched up the closest bottle of aspirin. He walked up to the clerk, taking wide, forceful steps. The clerk kept his eyes on Jack.  Jack wanted to punch the clerk in the mouth for making him feel dirty.  He wanted an excuse to punch him in the nose and watch the blood filter through his black moustache. Jack set the bottle of aspirin on the counter. 

The clerk fixed his eyes on Jack’s.  “Is this everything?”

“Yes.”  Jack returned the clerk’s stare.  He could feel his face tense and his jaw lock as it always did when he was angry.  Jack knew he had an intense frown that signaled his anger like a flashing neon sign.  The frown frightened some people, others it made tense and ready to fight, because they thought Jack was ready to fight.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!” Jack said, raising his voice to where he thought it demanded respect and instilled a little fear as he placed his palms on the counter and leaned a few inches closer to the clerk. 

The clerk backed away from Jack. “Okay! Okay! That will be three fifteen.  I just wanted to know.”

Jack fished in his pocket, and slapped the exact change onto the counter.  He snatched the bottle from the counter and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. “Keep the receipt and the bag.  I don’t need any more paper in my life.”  Jack started toward the door.

“Asshole,” muttered the clerk.

Jack whirled around and pointed a finger at the clerk’s nose.  “I don’t need any of your fucking attitude.  Do you understand?”

“Hey!  This is my store!  Get out or I’ll call the cops, you fucking psycho!”

Jack twisted in rage.  He wanted to grab the clerk by the throat and pound his head against the cash register. But then Jack noticed the security camera hidden above and behind the counter.  Jack felt as if he would burst if he didn’t do something, even if it was as meaningless an act as turning over the magazine and newspaper racks near the door, but he dared not do anything violent with the camera watching. Jack shot the bird at the clerk.  “Go fuck yourself, asshole!”

“Asshole!” shouted the clerk.  “Go to hell!”

Jack spun around and shoved the door back so hard that it swung all the way back to the limit its mechanical arm allowed. Jack threw open the car door, sat in his driver’s seat, and started the engine before slamming his palms several times against the steering wheel.  He threw the corvette into reverse, whipped out of the parking space, and sped down the street. Jack fumed and swore all the way home. 

Entering the kitchen, Jack slammed the door behind him. On the refrigerator was a note:  “Jack — I’ve gone shopping with Betty & Jeanette.  Maybe to happy hour later.  Fix your own supper.  I may not be back by then. —T”.

Bitch, thought Jack.  This is typical.  I go out of my way for her and she takes off without a word.  Jesus, how inconsiderate!  As soon as I find a richer broad, I’m dumping Theresa’s narrow ass.  Damn!  Jack punched the refrigerator scattering magnets, recipes, and photos.

Jack knew he needed to relax and to forget about the clerk. He got a beer from the fridge, got his cigarettes and matches from the kitchen table, went into the living room, put an X-rated tape into the VCR, and flopped down in his easy chair.  He couldn’t get into the movie because visions of grabbing the clerk by the hair and slamming his face several times into the cash register kept racing through his mind over and over.  Every time Jack lit a cigarette a screaming man appeared in the match flame and startled him. Jack went over to his computer and tried going through his e-mail and reviewing the accounts from the trucking company he owned, but he could not get over his rage. He rose and paced back and forth muttering repeatedly “Asshole, fucking asshole”.

Jack glanced through the window and saw the mail truck pulling away.  Good, the mail’s here, he thought, maybe there will be something in that for me to do.  Jack went out to the mailbox and pulled out several bills, a couple of greeting cards, and a magazine in a black plastic wrapper. Jack went back to his easy chair and flopped down in it once again.  He tossed the bills and greeting cards to the side and opened the magazine. It was “American History Illustrated”.  Good, he thought, this might help.  Jack enjoyed history.

Jack tore off the wrapper and on the cover was the caption: “ Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg ¾ Valiant Effort or Incredible Blunder?” Beneath a painting of the Confederate lines being decimated point blank by rifle and artillery fire was an inset of a Matthew Brady photo showing three dead rebels.  Sprawled in the foreground, face turned to the camera, was Jack’s nameless companion in hell. 

Jack threw the magazine across the room as if it had suddenly turned to red-hot steel. He leapt from his chair and kicked it behind the couch.  It could stay there until hell froze over for all he cared.  He began pacing back and forth across the room, repeatedly shifting between crossing his arms and putting his hands in his pockets. A chill ran throughout his body. He could not feel warm enough.  He rubbed both arms from the shoulder to the wrist to warm them, but nothing helped.

He stopped at a window and looked out at the sunshine seeping through the leaves on the trees. Something about the light and the leaves fascinated him.  The anger ebbed away in a few minutes and left Jack feeling at peace, relaxed, with his skin tingling, sensitive to the lightest touch.  What’s going on out there with the light and the leaves? He had never really thought about it before.  He guessed that few people ever did.  The light speeds from the sun in a mere eight minutes, and falls upon the leaves.  The leaves, in a miraculous process, somehow consume the sunlight as food along with water and air and use it to grow and strengthen and build a tree as solid and noble as an oak. How can something as symbolic of size, strength, and solidity as an oak be made of the three most changeable and intransient substances knownlight, water, and air?

I have never noticed so many beautiful things before.  I know the world hasn’t changed since last night; it’s being just as shitty to me as it ever was.  Jesus, what is it with me today? Am I going manic-depressive?  One moment I’m on cloud nine, the next I’m pissed as hell.

Jack stood and gazed out the window.  The south Texas sun made him feel as if he were a child again, being wrapped in a warm, flannel blanket by his mother.  Jack leaned forward, rested his forehead against the cool glass, and closed his eyes for a moment. He drummed his fingers on the windowsill.  He felt relaxed, drowsy, mildly drunk, but with an underlying current of energy, as if he had had too much caffeine. He massaged his forearms, and then rubbed his shoulders to release the last bits of tension.  He massaged his neck and ran his fingers through his hair.  He felt incredibly good. He stretched and twisted from side to side.  He turned to the center of the room, and took a step, and then he skipped.  He skipped again.  He skipped across the room. He placed both palms on the floor, and then stood on his hands with his legs out straight and his heels against the wall.  Pocket change went cascading out of his jeans and onto the carpet.  Jack did three vertical push-ups and placed his feet on the floor and somersaulted backward into the center of the carpet. He had not done a vertical push-up or a somersault in twenty years.  He felt renewed, vigorous.  He had also felt a large, thick object push up into his right buttock as he had rolled across the carpet: his wallet.  Jack took the wallet out of his hip pocket and laid it on a coffee table nearby.

He glanced around at the room from his new perspective on the carpet.  Only the sunlight coming through the window seemed to give him real pleasure today.  In comparison the flat-screen TV, the high-powered stereo system, the high-priced DVD player, the eighty-gigabyte PC with the flat-screen monitor, offered only vague and twisted distortions of reality. Jack knew now that he would not be happy until he got outside into the fresh air under the clear, blue sky and among the rustling leaves, the cool grass, and the flowing sunshine.  But that would be only a beginning.  There was something more he desired, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. There was something in the back of his mind that drove this energy that forced the blood faster through his veins.  Jack sprang to his feet, and glanced around the room, but could not figure it out.

Then he saw on the mantle a framed photo of Theresa standing in the surf fishing on the day they had gone camping on Padre Island.  They had found a deserted stretch of beach and pitched a tent.  There was no other human within sight for the entire day.  At night, their driftwood campfire, the Milky Way, and an occasional falling star provided the only light as they made love again and again. That was what he wanted.

He wanted to make love.  He did not want just sex.  He was not interested in his own orgasm as much as he felt an overpowering desire for the smooth texture of Theresa’s skin; the velvety brush of her nipples across his face; the sight of the light playing upon the delicate, minute hair covering the back of her neck; the tickle of her breath as it flowed around the contours of his ear.  Above all else, he wanted to hear her voice, that voice that sometimes changed into a shrill nag when he wasn’t paying attention to what she said, or when he forgot to pick up something at the store, or when he neglected to call and tell her he would be late for supper.  Now it dawned on him: over the years she had put up with a lot more crap than she should have.  He wanted to apologize.

Jack reached for the phone, but saw Theresa’s cell phone lying next to it.  Theresa’s note had said that she would be at happy hour, which meant she would be at Alexandra’s.  Happy hour was from four to seven, and it was almost four now.  Jack grabbed his cigarettes and was out the door.

When Jack walked into Alexandra’s it was crowded, but it wasn’t crammed shoulder to shoulder as on Saturday nights.  It was small, with maybe a maximum capacity of a hundred and fifty, with brick walls, and a U-shaped mahogany bar with brass trim and a brass foot rail. There was a jukebox and several tables and booths, but not enough room for a band or dance floor.  Everything was polished, clean, and well organized.  Two bartenders in white shirts with black bow ties, supported by a short bar back in a black polo shirt, handled all the customers.  It was one of the coziest, nicest, and most expensive bars in town.

Jack looked over the crowd, but saw neither Theresa nor her friends.  Might as well have a beer and wait a while, thought Jack, there are worse things that could happen to a guy. Jack took a seat at the bar and a tall, thin, blonde bartender with a pockmarked face came over.

“How can I help you?”  The bartender was not happy; he had a stern, unsmiling expression with a somber tone.

 

“I’ll have a pint of Bass.”

 

The bartender took a step, poured the Bass, and set it in front of Jack.  “That’ll be three ten.”

 

Jack reached into his pocket, and found that he had left his wallet at home, but he had a wad of cash.  Jack gave the man a five.

 

“Keep the change?”

 

Jack couldn’t believe the man had the balls to ask for over a sixty per cent tip for taking a step. “No.”

 

The bartender got the change, set it in front of Jack, and walked off to another customer without a word; his impertinence was taking the shine off the wonderful mood Jack was experiencing.  Jack sipped his ale with an electric tension gathering inside.  He lit another cigarette and the little screaming man in the match flame startled him again. 

 

When he finished his beer, Jack ordered another from the same surly bartender, who was apparently responsible for Jack’s side of the bar. The bartender brought it, set it in front of Jack, and said “three ten”. Jack gave him three dollar bills and a dime.  The bartender took it without a word or a glance at Jack. This added a little fuel to the fire smoldering in Jack, who was growing tired of waiting for Theresa.  Jack pulled out his cell phone and tried calling home, but no one answered.

 

Jack’s pocket was weighted with a few dollars in change including that from the convenience store. Jack felt he could wait a while longer for Theresa, but not very much longer.  He left his pint at the bar, went to the jukebox, and put in all the change he could plus a couple of dollar bills.  While the music played, Jack finished his ale, then ordered a third and a fourth, each time going through the same surly ritual with the bartender, each time paying in exact change, each time lighting a cigarette and being startled by the little man, and each time calling home with no result.

 

For his fifth pint, Jack dug into his pocket and discovered that he had only three dollars left and about a dozen pennies. Jack laid the three bills on the bar and started counting out the pennies.

 

Suddenly the bartender whipped his arm straight out, pointed at the door, and shouted, “Get out!”

“What?”

“Get out of my bar!”

“Fuck you! I haven’t done anything

“You don’t tell me to fuck myself in my bar! Get out of my fucking bar!”

“You goddamned son of a bitch

“Get out of my bar or I’ll call the fucking cops!”

“Where’s the manager?  I want the fucking manager!”

“Get out of my goddamned bar, you son of a bitch!”

Through a doorway on the opposite side of the bar Jack spotted a young man in a black suit in a hallway leading to an adjacent restaurant and guessed he was the manager. Jack brushed through the crowd, and shoved his raging face to within a foot of the manager’s.  “I want to talk to you about your fucking bartender. That son of a bitch just threw me out for not tipping.  I’ve been to hundreds of bars in my life and this is the only time I have been thrown out for not tipping!  What kind of fucking business are you running here?”

The manager stood quietly erect and emotionless, listening to Jack’s tirade with a professional and dispassionate interest. At one point he gently raised his right hand to chest level and motioned for someone behind Jack to stay put.

Jack glanced over his right shoulder and saw a huge, well-dressed, bald man of about thirty that could easily have been a pro-wrestler at his day job.  He had taken a step toward Jack and, judging by the intense look contorting his face, was ready for a vicious fight, until the manager stopped him with the gentle, halfhearted wave.  Jack wouldn’t have cared if the bald man had charged screaming.  Jack wanted a fight.  He needed to release the tension that was boiling over. Jack stood quaking in fury, his right knee trembling, his large hands knotted into tight fists.  As Jack flashed his face to the bouncer, he detected a moment of apprehension in the big man’s eyes, a look that told Jack the big man had a touch of fear, and that told Jack that the fight would have gone to Jack.  At that point Jack had no fear, only a passion to destroy anything even vaguely connected to the bartender. All other emotions and desires vanished.

Jack turned back to the manager. “What the hell are you going to do about this?  You need to fire the son of a bitch.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  We have had complaints about the man before, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Nothing you can do about it!  Fire the son of a bitch!  I can’t believe he’s any damn good for your business.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Jack started waving his forefinger in the manager’s face. “Goddammit, give me the owner’s name.  I’ll call him and see what he can do about it.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  I’m not allowed to do that.”

“You motherfucker! Give me the owner’s name and his number or I’ll find out and take your fucking name to him too, you little shit.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  I’m not allowed to do that.”

Jack started thumping his finger against the manager’s chest.  “You cocksucker! So help me God, I will make some calls tomorrow and I am going to do my damnedest to find out who owns this gyp joint and I am taking you, Brad Emerson,” Jack said reading from the manager’s name tag, “and that fucking piece of shit bartender up to him myself, you cocksucker! Jack whirled about and stomped out the door, vowing vengeance on the lot of them.

When Jack got home, he found a note from Theresa on the door.  “Jack, I have decided I need some time away from you.  Don’t bother calling my mother’s.  I won’t be there.  Don’t ask Betty or Jeanette either.  They won’t tell you where I am. I just need some time to sort things out.  I have packed everything I need. You can keep the rest of my stuff.  Maybe I will be back some day. T”

Jack was now nearly paralyzed with fury.  He wanted to scream, rage, throw furniture, raise havoc, and wreak destruction, but he knew all of these were futile gestures that would only hurt his own world and do nothing to alleviate the suffering he felt.  He went into the living room, sat in his easy chair, and gazed into the growing darkness of a far corner as night enveloped the unlit house.  For hours he sat in the same transfixed pose trembling with anger, searching his mind for a solution to bring his world back into order.  There was nothing he could do about Theresa except await her return, if she decided to return.  The bartender was another matter.

People like that bartender are no damn good, thought Jack.  He’s got his whole fucking organization protecting his sorry ass, so there’s no reason he should not go on being an asshole. Someone needs to set him aright, just on general principle, if for no other reason.  And he needs to be taught a lesson quick, so he knows what he’s being punished for.  These sons of bitches are like dogs.  If you don’t punish them right away, they don’t know what they are being punished for.  I’ll make my revenge swift and violent so he’ll remember it.  I’ll wear a ski mask so even if he gets a look at me, he won’t see anything.  I’ll wear old clothes and use a baseball bat so that I can burn all the evidence later.  I have never killed anyone before, and I won’t kill now, but I’ll make him wish he were dead.  The beauty of this is that he will suspect it was me, because of the argument today, but there won’t be any evidence, so there’s nothing anyone can do. There are probably a lot of others that he has pissed off as well, so I won’t be the only suspect.  The manager said they had had complaints about him before.  He’ll never be able to know for certain who did it.  He’ll have to either start being a nicer guy or get out of the bartending business.  Either way I win.  I might even be able to rub a little salt into the wound¾ literally as well as figuratively.  He can suspect it’s me, but if nothing is proven, I’ll go back to his bar and drop subtle hints about it maybe happening again.  If he tries a cheap shot like spitting into my beer, he’ll keep paying the price until he learns who is in control.

Jack stood, went to his bar, and fixed himself an Irish whiskey on the rocks.  He ambled over to the window and gazed out at the night.  The sunbeam was long gone.  The live oak was a silhouette.  Night wrapped everything in it cool, black beauty, but it wasn’t the beauty of the sunbeam.  This was an otherworldly beauty of the type found in ancient forests, on the sea before dawn, or in a tomb.  I like the darkness, thought Jack. I feel better with it rather than with that shit with the sunbeam earlier.  What was that?  What has been happening to me?

Jack nursed his whiskey for an hour and then poured another. He lit another cigarette and told the little man in the flame to fuck off. He continued pouring and nursing his drinks until an hour before closing time. By that time he had gone through two packs of cigarettes, and he was tipsy, but he didn’t think he was so drunk that he lacked the self-control to do what needed to be done. He went out to his closet and got the baseball bat he had since he was a kid. He smacked it against his palm a couple of times to remind himself of its weight.  He took a stance beside an imaginary home plate, and swung at an imaginary fastball, but he obliterated a real lamp on a nearby coffee table. “Lamp was no damned good anyway,” he muttered.  He then got two large garbage bags from the kitchen: one to contain his bloody clothes and the other to hide the bat and to put over the bartender’s head.  He also got a saltshaker and put it in his pocket.  Jack then went into the bedroom and changed into an old pair of jeans and a faded black polo shirt from the back of the closet. He put on the oldest pair of sneakers he had, and got the dark blue ski mask from the back of the closet’s top shelf. He tried it on to get the feel of it and to see if it interfered with his vision.  It did not.  He took it off and crammed it into a hip pocket.  He put his good clothes into the garbage bag. He would do the deed, change, put the old clothes into the bag, and toss them into a dumpster on the far side of town.   The police would probably search any dumpsters near the crime scene for clues. He went to his dresser and pulled out a pair of cotton work gloves and shoved those into the other hip pocket. 

Once ready, Jack went back to his bar and had a final shot and a cigarette to steady his nerves. Afterwards, his nerves were still not quite as steady as he wanted so he had another shot. He then took the bottle and poured most of the remainder into a small silver hip flask that Theresa had given him for Christmas and shoved that into his left front pocket.  His head was now a bit groggy, but he decided it would be clear enough by the time he reached the bar, so it shouldn’t be a problem.  He grabbed his wallet and cigarettes, went out into the garage, hopped into his corvette, and headed downtown.

Jack parked a block away from Alexandra’s and, leaving the bag containing his change of clothes in the car and taking the bag containing the bat, kept to the shadows as he made his way to an alley across from Alexandra’s entrance just before closing.  Jack guessed it would take an hour to close the place, so the bartender should come out about three. Jack hung back in the alley and tried not to look suspicious. He watched up and down the street and whenever someone appeared, he would duck behind a bush or corner. He went behind a building to light his cigarettes, so that no one would notice the flame. A thousand different details kept going through his mind.  Again and again he went over a mental checklist of things he brought along to make certain he had everything he needed. He wondered if there was a back exit the bartender could use, in which case Jack might wait until dawn only to have to come back tomorrow.  The thought of having to go through all this again unsettled Jack and made him a bit more nervous. Jack pulled the flask from his pocket and took a swig.  What if the bartender walked out with a co-worker? This thought also made him nervous and Jack took another swig.  Or what if the bartender’s girlfriend picked him up every night after work?  Jack might have to come out here many times before he finally got the opportunity he wanted.  He took another swig. Jack’s head was beginning to fog and therefore he decided to lay off the whiskey until the deed was over. He looked at his watch; he still had forty minutes to wait. 

Jack lived those forty minutes in a maelstrom of doubt, fear, suspicion, boredom and, especially, terror, whenever someone approached unexpectedly from around the corner or out of nearby shadows. He had a couple of more sips, but not enough to sap his strength.  Whenever he thought no one was around, Jack slipped into the shadows behind the corner of a building and had a cigarette or took a couple of practice swings at the bartender’s ribs and head.  Horizontal, thought Jack, I’ll have to swing horizontal like I’m swinging at a baseball to get full power and to keep my balance for the next swing. 

Jack checked his watch. It was almost three.  Jack peeped from behind the corner where he was taking his practice swings and saw the bartender walking alone from the bar and up the street to Jack’s left. Jack put the bat back into the garbage bag, took a deep breath, and walked out from his hiding place to cross the street at a quick, but quiet pace to maintain a spot about fifty feet behind the bartender. 

Jack followed the bartender through the darkened streets and around a couple of corners toward an open car lot with monthly rates. The few streetlights in the area were around a bank on the other side of the lot.  Jack scanned all directions and saw no one.   There were no lights in any of the buildings. Jack took a deep breath, put on the mask, pulled the bat from the bag, and charged forward without a sound, bat held over his right shoulder.

The bartender heard running footsteps behind him and turned to see the bat coming for his left cheek.  As the bartender fell, Jack kept pounding his head, ribs, and groin. Within a few seconds the bartender was motionless in the gutter, but Jack continued to beat the bartender’s face into an unrecognizable mass for several minutes.  When Jack was finally exhausted, he checked the streets again and saw no one.  He lifted the mask from his head and felt the refreshing night air against his sweating face. He looked at the bartender’s wide-open eyes staring motionless into different parts of the night sky. “Well, fuck, I killed him. Hmm,” muttered Jack, “I didn’t use the bag, either,” he added as an afterthought.  Jack kicked the bag from where it lay on the sidewalk onto the corpse. He thought for a second, and then pulled out the saltshaker, uncapped it, and poured the salt on bartender’s face and ground it in with his shoe.

Jack reached into his pocket and took the final draught from the flask. There was no more. Jack needed something to calm his nerves.  He checked his pack and found he was out of cigarettes.  He could get them at a 24-hour convenience store, but he had no cash. He looked at the bank.  There was an ATM across the lot. Jack decided to quickly get the cash for the cigarettes and then high tail it back to the car to change and get the hell out.  Jack put the bat back into the bag and walked over to the ATM. As he got closer to the ATM the light showed a lot of blood on his jeans and shirt.  Jack kept watching in all directions, but no one approached. The streets were completely deserted.  At the ATM Jack pulled out his check card, inserted it into the machine, and punched in his pin. It was then he noticed the wide-angle camera lens staring at him and which had a clear view of the lot, the murder scene, and Jack’s walk from it.  “Fuck,” said Jack.

Suddenly the world went black around him and Jack awoke naked, writhing in pain in a puddle of sewage and vomit at the edge of a fiery lake in the depths of hell as thousands of miserable souls milled around him. The raw-boned man stood muttering to the side and staring at Jack. “It’s the game. The game. Y’know, the game. If they beat you constantly, you’ll get used to it. But if they let you rest, oh, this is vicious, yes it is, let you rest once in a while to catch your breath, send you back to the world to enjoy being alive, it makes it harder to start again.  They even make you notice things you never noticed before and enjoy the world as you never enjoyed it before, just so that it will be that much harder for you to return.  Agony. Agony. Pure agony.  And and and all the time you’re resting, they’re reminding you in little ways that you got to come back.” His voice trailed off, almost weeping. He stopped clawing and scratching and stared at the burning sea, muttering, “They’re masters. Yes, masters, masters. You never get used to the torment. Never do. The suffering is always fresh.”

Just as Jack stood up, gazing in disbelief at the man and the surroundings, he heard a voice shout “You!” from the morass of the damned to his left.  He turned in time to see the bartender run toward him and leap, tackling Jack about the waist.  Both rolled, kicking and clawing and punching, down an embankment into the fiery surf.