Where Dead Fish Go
J. A. Coppingher
I was halfway to a good solid drunk when Jiffy walked into the bar. I didn’t see him come through the door, but I didn’t need to. I could feel his presence, hovering there in the door, eyes picking out the back of my neck without pause. Even in the midst of a Friday night “let’s-get-pissed-cuz-the-week-is-over” crowd, he latched onto me in a heartbeat. Just like he always could. I closed tired eyes and sighed, taking another belt of Johnny Walker. White label. Black was better -blue best of all- but I don’t have the cash to kill my grey matter in style, so I settle for the cheap stuff.
I know what he’s wearing, without looking: faded jeans, boots, and a pull over sweater. Probably green. Jiff’s always loved green, ever since we were kids. His long black hair is pulled back in a ponytail and there’s a sad smile on his face as he stares at his oldest friend sitting all alone in this dirty little bar. I know all that, just as I know the sound of my own heartbeat. Just like I know half the women in the place are twisting in their seats to get a better eye on the hunk that just walked in. One damn good looking guy is my friend! In another life –a better life– he could have been a movie star. Instead, he’s just a Fed-Ex delivery guy making all the secretaries moist when he comes to take away their packages. He doesn’t cross the bar, just waits at the door, and I give up pretending I don’t know he’s there. I toss off the last of the Johnny with my left hand, while I rest my right elbow on the bar and casually flip him the bird without ever looking back. He starts moving towards me and I can feel his laughter long before I hear it. Of course I fucking can! Jesus, I don’t need this shit in my life anymore. I gesture to the bartender to refill my glass, waggling two fingers at him, so he brings the same for Jiff.
“What’s doin’, old man,” Jiff asks, grabbing my shoulder and giving it a small squeeze as he slips onto the vacant stool beside me.
Without meaning to, I reach up and put my hand on top of his, grasping it tightly. For one split second everything rushes out of me and I’m just glad to see him again. Glad that he’s here, glad to hear his voice, glad to know he’s still with me. Then the fear returns with a sickening crunch that smacks up against the front of my skull and I pull away from his hand, grasping desperately for the scotch the bartender is just setting down in front of us. I take half the high-ball in a single gulp, still not looking at Jiff.
“Not much,” I lie, finally setting the glass down. “Just another day in paradise.”
He chuckles and I finally look at him. The hair is a bit shorter than I remember, and the sweater is blue, not green, but other than that he’s just as I pictured. For some goddam reason my eyes fill with tears and for one half-crazed, drunken, moment I can see him as the nine year old boy he used to be. His features blur in the tears and his long hair becomes a flat-top crew cut, just like he always wore. Even the ever present sweater disappears and I’d swear he was standing there in those ratty old orange swim trunks with the blue stripes on the cuffs… The only thing that didn’t change was the eyes. Those cat green eyes that damn near seemed to glow whenever he got upset. Even as a kid folks had always commented on Jiffy’s eyes. I remember one girl in high school –Sandra Mueller her name was– swearing she’d give up two cup sizes if she could have eyes that beautiful. That’s the only word for them: beautiful. Those beautiful green eyes had saved my life once upon a time. In another life. Hell, in another universe!
Jiff’s hand tightened on my shoulder and I blinked the dampness from my eyes, casually wiping the residue from the corners of my eyes with the back of one hand. “Smoky in here,” I said.
“Sure,” he agreed, but we both knew that wasn’t it. We looked at each other for a moment, then began to laugh. It was ludicrous, me trying to lie to him, and even more for him pretending he believed my bullshit. I threw one arm around him and pulled him in for a hug, which he returned happily. It was good to be together again.
We held the hug for a long while, perhaps too long if the raised eyebrows of the wannabe cowboys, and middle aged salesmen, who made up the population of this dump were any indicator. We finally pulled apart, stupid grins on our faces, not caring very much what the local constabulary though about our display of affection. Jiff took a long pull at his drink before poking his long index finger deep into the soft roll of flesh hanging over my belt.
“You’re getting fat, Boomer. Bald too, for that matter,” he said, pulling my head down so he could get a better view of the thinning spot at the crown. “You look like shit, man.”
I pulled away, punching him –none too lightly– in the small ribs as I did. He hunched over with a smile and turned to face me full on. I went for another pull of the Johnny, only to find the glass was already empty. How do you suppose that happened? I thought about ordering another but with Jiff sitting there I’d lost interest in getting a drunk on. I just wanted to get the hell out of this depressing shit-hole and go somewhere quiet, where Jiff and I could talk. I always felt better after talking with Jiff. No matter how bad things seemed, we always managed to find the right answers if we talked . . .
“Goddam it, Jiff! Cut it out. Cut it out, right fuckin’ now!”
I spun around on the stool, letting my anger slip free so he could feel it. The unexpected calmness left me and I wanted to punch him right in the side of the head. How dare you, I thought at him, putting all of my outrage into the feeling. How dare you Push on me? He caught the emotion all right, I could see that by the way he blinked and pulled back from me, as if he really did expect to be hit. He turned those green eyes away from me, and had the decency to look ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” he said, holding up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m really sorry, Boom. I just . . . You’re so . . . I just wanted to talk about it is all.”
“Fuck you,” I said. “Maybe I don’t want to talk. Maybe I just wanna sit here and get shit faced.”
“Come on, man, don’t be that way. It’s been three years, I don’t want to start like this. I just came out to see you, to make sure you’re okay.”
Three years? Shit. Had it really been that long? I did a quick mental count, not easy with the excessive amount of scotch in my system, and figured that was about right. The last time I’d seen him was at Terry Williams wedding and that was before Cheryl had split, so yeah . . . just about three years. It was hard to believe they hadn’t even talked on the phone in all that time. So much had happened, for both of them. Jiff had married that girl . . .
“Andi,” Jiff supplied the name without my asking and I couldn’t help smiling. Three years and it hadn’t made a bit of difference. Here they were Pushing feelings back and forth, answering each other’s questions before they were asked . . . hell it might as well have been three minutes.
“Andi,” I agreed. “Sorry I didn’t make the wedding.”
Jiff shrugged, taking another drink and ordering me another by way of apology. “No prob. I knew you weren’t coming. I’m sorry about Cheryl. I wanted to get together, but knew you didn’t want to see me.”
I hadn’t. The pain of it had been too fresh; my insides still too raw. People need to heal after a loss like that, and healing needs to be done alone. Having Jiff’s feelings bouncing around inside of me then, no matter how well meant, would have been like pouring alcohol on an amputated leg. The best thing he could have done for me was stay away, so he did. That’s part of why I didn’t go to his wedding: I could feel he didn’t want me around.
“You don’t love her, do you?” I asked.
“No, not very much,” he admitted. “But I do love our daughter and they’re kind of a matched set, so I stay.”
I felt the depth of that love when he thought of her and I had to smile. Good for you, Jiffy-Pop! I’m glad one of us found something worth loving in this piss-poor excuse of a world. God knows you deserve it.
“So do you, Boom.”
I laughed again, but there was a hollow sound to it. “Yea, well. Since when does anyone get what they deserve in this life?”
“Stevie got what he deserved,” Jiff said quietly.
The words hit me like a freight train. My stomach heaved and my nuts pulled up so tight in my sack I’d have sworn somebody was squeezing them in a vise. My head began to pound like I had Buddy Rich in there playing to beat the band.
“No,” I said.
“Yes. He did. He got just what he deserved, Boom . . . She gave it to him.”
The last was too much for me. I bolted from the stool, pushing my way through a crowd of pissed off car salesmen and overly made-up secretaries. I barely made the men’s room –thank God there was an empty stall– when everything I’d had to drink came pouring out of my mouth and nose in one burning gush. I heaved until there was nothing left inside me and then heaved some more just for fun. I finally stopped, shivering and covered in cold sweat, sitting on a piss covered floor and looking up at some genius’ attempt at humor scratched into the toilet stall: “Mexican’s is living proof that Indian’s fucked buffalos”. Great. Just great. Not only was the wannabe comedian a racist, he had no grasp of grammar or punctuation. How fitting for a useless old English teacher like myself. Poetic Justice, my students would call it.
“You can’t run from Her, Boomer.”
I looked at him through red, bleary, eyes. He leaned against the chipped ceramic sink, one leg hooked over its edge, boot dangling in the air. His arms were crossed over his chest and he fixed me again with that green-eyed gaze. He looked strong. Strong and self-assured in all the areas where I was weak and frightened; just like when we were kids. Jiffy had been my only protector in that insane hell we’d called a childhood. He’d been my guide, confessor, inspiration, and hero. Jiff had never been scared of anything. Me, I’d always been afraid. Afraid of school, bullies, girls, teachers, my parents, Stevie . . . Oh, hell! I didn’t want to think about Stevie. I’d been trying to forget about him for the better part of twenty years. Why the fuck should I worry about him now?
“Because he was your brother.”
“Fuck you!” I screamed, just as a young kid in khakis and a J-Crew shirt came into the bathroom. He took one look at me and decided he really didn’t need to piss that badly after all. Jiff smiled at the hasty retreat, but I was too tired and sick to see the humor. I rested my head against the filthy toilet seat, closing my eyes to fight back tears.
“I can’t do this again, Jiffy-Pop. I’m too old. Too tired. Too scared. Shit, I’m so old that I’m tired of being scared.” I meant it as a joke, but realized there was more truth to it than I wanted to think about. “Too scared, Jiff. I’m so fucking tired of always being scared.”
“You weren’t always scared,” he said. “You were pretty fucking brave that summer.”
Jesus. Summer Nine. That’s what we’d called it: Summer Nine. The last year either of us would be, what any normal person would consider, children. By the end of that August I has passed my decade mark and Jiff followed two weeks to the day later. A short ten years and our childhood was gone beyond recall.
“Summer Nine,” I murmured, no longer trying to stop the tears.
“Summer Nine,” Jiffy-Pop answered, and I could hear in his voice that I wasn’t the only one weeping.
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