Issue #4

Kiss of the Underachiever

Scott Garson


Twice I went into that bar, I think—unless I’ve conflated two different bars, alike in being singular, and in having no definite place on the map of the city I’ve made in my head.


The first time:


I was twenty. My eldest brother, Corey William, drove my car, which was, as he claimed—I made no argument—a total piece of shit. He was after a loser, a person who owed him cash (the sum he wouldn’t divulge). He felt bad for this loser, whose rank on the loser scale would rise once everyone heard about the coming extraction of debt.


All right, said Corey William as he slowed to pull to the lot.


Have I said it was winter? My wiper blades had scratched wide arches of granule over the glass, and they—these arches—seethed with offerings of light from cars when they passed.


I answered, All right.


Why don’t you wait here? went my brother.


I knew that I’d sounded less than poised. Still, I squinched up my eyes in offense.


Then we went in. Then all was transference. From darkness, amber spirit light. From cold, about two dozen freaks having some sort of battle with whipped cream pies.


What can I do—what words can I use to make this sound more likely?


My brother ducked to the bar itself and got hit, I believe, in the shoulder. I stood by the wall. The people behind the bar—bartenders?—popped up to launch pies. There were pies on the tables, and others winging them. All this to the amplified sawings of 90’s recordings of electric guitars.


I remember one person. His face was broad and red and circumscribed with sparse hair. He shook his head furiously. I mean that his head was a blur. He lashed his tongue from side to side, scooping in portions of cream.


I don’t remember, with clarity, much else—which seems strange, given that history of some kind was being made here.


If I could venture a thought: We had, Corey William and I, stepped outside of what could be supported in a normal way.


It was as if it hadn’t happened. I mean later—afterward. It was as if we hadn’t been there.


The next time:


I was older. Thirty, thirty-two. I went with this young kid, Tondy, who’d been part of a crew I’d been part of, that spring. A dock crew. We’d worked to install docks.


Tondy was slim. Facets of bone in his shoulders glowed in the petroleum steam of the convenience-store lot, which is where he and I had crossed paths. He was happy to see me. He began talking, right away, as if I was versed in his latest concerns, as if we’d been friends all our lives. 


I thought there was something wrong with him, sort of. I thought he was light-giving, charmed.


He wasn’t a cokehead. He didn’t have, anyway, a cokehead’s tense, businesslike mien. But he was after cocaine, which he said could be bought after-hours at a certain tavern he knew.


Off of some freeway? Close to an underpass?


Weakish silver area light exposed a run of junebugs, which moved in squirming unity, like parts of somebody’s face. I said, Look at that. But Tondy had left me behind, already pushed through the doorway.


This time things were much slower—and purer, I want to say. An old man with a lovely, beaten face talked about after the war. An unfiltered cigarette burned in his hand, which lay open, as if misplaced.


I stood near the ribboning float of that smoke. I tried to breathe its flavor.


From a barkeep, my former crew-mate bought the drug in a little rectangular fold of glossy magazine page, then sat to prepare it—which he did in a modest way, keeping his backbone erect. From a girl at the bar, I bought a red ale. Her forearms were naked and dusked with black hair. Her eyes were a kind of see-through blue and caused my heart to panic.


But just for a second. 


We were talking—she and I and others—about the past.


I was a shuffleboard champion, said one guy. I won a tournament that was held on the deck of a ship.


I was on T.V., a woman’s voice came. When I was ten. I sang a madrigal, acappella. In Latin I sang.


The blue-eyed bartender drew a light beer. I was gifted—I was in gifted class, she said as the woman across from her, the singer, tried to locate the sounds of her song in a ruptured voice.


I closed my eyes, nodded my head, and held up my hand to be counted.


Later I kissed her. We stood in the frame of the hallway leading to the men’s and ladies’ rooms. The kiss wasn’t heavy or too high-stakes. It had come, I’d have said, in a natural way, just part of the conversation: a kiss that was really a thought of itself, if thought was a factor at all.


What I mean: It was good. It bore no policy.


Isn’t that grace? All foresight taken from you. You’re nothing, just sticks of chance. 


I thought I was there. I thought that I stood in that place.


But her lips released then—the bartender’s. And though I didn’t look up right away, I could see how things would be.


We stood in a hallway. We stood near restrooms, in a scent of disinfectant. In the jukebox, the stylus took the final groove of an Otis Redding song. A man stood, and in standing scraped the wooden floor with a leg of his chair.


He was apparently leaving. They were apparently closing, at last. The bartender’s eyes were open but they had gone still, with the rest of her.


Tondy wondered what happened.


I said, What.


With the bar girl, he said as we coasted the 4:00 a.m. streets.


I pasted white drug to my fingertip and worked this into my gums.


That’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it.


No, I tried to explain.


That’s cool.


Nothing happened.


Into the unmarked darkness ahead, for miles, the hanging traffic lights blinked red, like error messages. Tondy asked, in a fraudulently casual way, where he was dropping me off. I told him I’d been there.




That place, I said. I’ve been there before, I told him.

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Scott Garson 

Scott Garson is the author of American Gymnopédies, a collection of microfictions. He has stories in or coming from American Short Fiction, New Orleans Review, New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Carolina Quarterly, and others.


This story was originally published in Issue 4 of The Literarian.