Johnny bought the beer store with a government loan. He’d been in the Navy then worked as a postman for sixteen years. The other money in his life—the poker machines, the dope, the gifts he leaves at the bars that stock his kegs—comes afterhours and with great caution.
Johnny does not want to go to jail.
Johnny wants to retire well before retirement age.
Sixty-five years old is bullshit.
At the cash register, without customers near, Johnny swallows his blood pressure pill. He eats healthy, drinks plenty of water. A treadmill sits in his office and it buzzes before and after work, three miles each way. He owns dumbbells, two sets, the other one at home. Maybe he doesn’t need the blood pressure pill. Johnny and the doctor traded ideas. Johnny worried the medicine would make his dick limp. The doctor said, “It’ll help with the stress.” Johnny took the prescription and he still fucks fine.
He gives the keys to Micah, the Irish kid who works part-time, and says, “You lock up.”
Micah says, “You coming back?”
Johnny says, “Don’t make me punch you,” but sweet.
Micah loves Johnny’s jokes. He lives with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend who strips at the Cricket and Johnny lets him sleep in the office if he needs to but never asks why.
Six months ago Micah saw Johnny after New York, the stress of coming home, how Johnny kicked the warehouse door so it bent and wouldn’t roll open. Being in the trade does that. Micah saw the fury but he doesn’t know the rest. He doesn’t ask either. Last Easter he bought Johnny a chocolate egg, a big one with nuts and nougat inside, and a card saying thanks.
On Sundays Johnny takes his wife and her kid, who he wants to think of as his kid, who he sometimes thinks of as his kid until the kid’s dad shows up, out for Thai food.
Today is Sunday.
He can’t think of anything else to do.
It’s been like that lately.
Even getting high feels lame.
His wife says, “We could go to the zoo.”
His wife is getting skinny from doing blow. She’s used to do a line once a month when they partied, then on weekends, and now she knocks back a couple bumps for lunch instead of a sandwich. She says, “I always stop by dinner,” which is probably true but she takes five Tylenol PM to sleep, a crush on her liver. Johnny would like to tell her, “You’re beautiful, you’re not twenty-two, so what, I love you,” but he needs better words.
He’s good with gifts.
The rest he fumbles over.
“The zoo could be fun,” she says.
“I don’t know,” Johnny says. “What if we go for a walk in the city?”
“Boring,” she says, dragging out the O and the R.
She wanted Steelers tickets last season so he got two, forty-yard line, behind the players’ bench. He buys roses for her birthday. They go downtown for their anniversary. He put a new TV in the basement so she could watch her programs while she walked on the treadmill.
Maybe she doesn’t notice.
He doesn’t always call them gifts.
Today he’d like to stay in and drink some beer, maybe toss back a line. He could call Micah and tell him to open the store in the morning. Micah has class at the community college but not until 12:30. Johnny pays for his tuition and books, two classes, like eight hundred bucks a semester. He throws fifty bucks at him when he looks broke.
The little that people did for Johnny, growing up, felt like bribes.
Or they did nothing.
He was in his twenties before he realized how little he’d had, Mom with a new boyfriend every six months, dad driving truck for a cross-country delivery company. The memories he had of someone buying him a piece of clothing or washing the clothes he bought were almost nil.
In the Navy, trying to be a Seal, Johnny dislocated his shoulder falling from the boat, some weird impact of water and bone, and no one swam back for him. He screamed and they bolted off, splashing, kicking, angry porpoises in the warm water off Florida. It was one good arm or drowning, the shore in the distance, the sun not even up. Motherfuck, he thought, and turned to his back and started to kick, slowly going into shock.
His wife says, “Let’s go to the Thai place. It’s what we do.”
She sips her third drink through a straw.
She looks at Johnny over her drink.
“I bet you’d like to kiss me,” she says.
“I always want to kiss you,” he says and walks across the room and kisses her so he can taste the drink in her mouth, apples and vodka, how her lips hold him there like always.
“You wanna fuck me?” she says.
“I do,” Johnny says. “Where’s the kid?”
“Playing video games,” she says.
At least the zoo is out, he thinks.
An hour later Johnny stops by the kid’s room.
He says, “You want to go to the zoo or the Thai place?”
“Pad Thai,” he says. “I’m too old for the zoo.”
“You’re never too old for the zoo,” Johnny says, “but I hear you.”
Going out the front door, the stepson says, “When can I get some new kicks?”
Johnny says, “When you hand me half the dough.”
“Where am I gonna get the dough?”
“Come down the store and work one night this week. The stockroom is a mess. You clean it up and that’s half your shoes.”
“Deal,” his stepson says, always willing to work, good kid, does his homework by himself, never bitches, plays sports and completely sucks but is happy for his teammates who toss him around in practice and leave cleat marks on his jersey.
The kid climbs in the car and pops on his headphones.
Johnny’s wife says, quietly, “His dad won’t want him in the beer store.”
Johnny says, “Either he won’t know or he can buck up and pay for the shoes.”
Johnny says, “How about that for a fucking change.”
He says, “Wipe your fucking nose.”
His stepson’s dad is a gimp. He lost three fingers on his left hand in a car accident. Some rich lawyer, drunk on martinis, caught him in the side of his old Chrysler and the door tore open like a beer can and the metal sliced off the fingers like a Ginsu knife.
They settled out of court and now the dad says he can’t hold a job.
“What?” Johnny said one night, “your right hand don’t work?”
The stepdad pays a little, sometimes two hundred a month, probably out of his settlement or maybe some government disability deal.
Johnny wishes he would stop paying and go the fuck away.
The stepdad drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, in cans, like a teenager.
Johnny pictures him sipping a beer with his left hand, pinkie and thumb holding on.
Johnny goes to New York once a month, on his own and for himself, and he includes his family when he says himself because he covers them and they cover him. He drives a different rented car each time, always a sedan, and he does everything he needs to do in the daylight like a real businessman handling business.
He used to take a gun but guns in New York cost minimum sentences.
Now he takes a knife, three-inch blade, perfectly legal.
Sometimes he buys stuffed animals and t-shirts, shit he doesn’t need.
He wears the same I Heart NY ballcap.
He makes sure the Yanks, Jets, Giants, Heat, or Knicks are playing.
If anyone asks, there’s his reason.
The Thai place is half-empty. The hostess knows Johnny. She comes in the beer store and he gives her his discount. She hugs him and his wife and rubs his stepson’s hair.
Johnny says, “Can you put us in the corner?”
Johnny likes to see the place, even if he doesn’t need to.
Maybe he needs to.
Dan Snyder, a guy Johnny knew in high school and the Navy, eats alone at a four-top table, something that always seems greedy to Johnny, one dude hogging four spots.
Dan wrestled in high school but only started his senior year. Johnny started three years, won sections twice. He placed in states with a broken thumb in a soft cast, chewing off chunks of his mouthpiece to help with the pain. Dan wore the best wrestling shoes, the best headgear. His dad paid for everything, bought all the hoagies everyone else had to sell.
Dan is a cop, supposedly narcotics, that’s the rumor. In the Navy, Dan, drunk on rum, paid $300 to fuck a Puerto Rican whore who, later, whipped out her dick and balls.
Johnny sees Dan and says, “Hey,” and touches Dan’s table.
But Dan doesn’t say anything.
He keeps eating.
Johnny touches his shoulder.
Dan shrugs him off, sort of aggressive.
Johnny’s wife notices. She steers her kid away and follows the hostess to another table. Johnny stands and waits. The restaurant is tacky. Over by the restroom is a fake palm tree. The cash register is old-fashioned, money in a drawer. Dan stays in his seat.
“Over here,” Johnny’s wife says, waving, nervous.
Johnny could slap the back of Dan’s head and pocket his gun before Dan could bite another pancake drenched in syrup.
Dan wrestled 167.
Johnny wrestled 145.
When Dan fucked up, the coach would make him wrestle Johnny and Johnny would toss him around, despite their weight difference, shooting legs and riding Dan down into a guillotine, pulling at his neck like a dandelion he wanted to pop from its stem. One time there were tears, another time blood. In the locker room, nervous and fumbling, Dan said, “Maybe take it easy? We’re on the same team,” and Johnny said, “You’re kidding, right?”
“Honey,” Johnny’s wife says. “Over here.”
“I’m talking to a friend,” Johnny says.
“You’re not,” Dan says, but quiet.
In his chair, with his newspaper spread out and his shirt unbuttoned and black chest hair showing, Dan looks like a cop pretending not to be a narc, a poseur, like skipping a shower and growing your hair out makes you hard, makes you street, like good shoes make the wrestler.
Dan wanted to be a Seal like Johnny, same training class. He lasted five days. He puked. He shat. He did push-ups in puke and shit. Then he disappeared. One guy said Dan ruptured a disc in his neck. Another guy said Dan’s dad, who did something in Washington, got him out.
A year later, in Puerto Rico, in a dank bar which was really a tent with open windows and bottled beer on ice, Johnny walked in and spotted Dan hanging out with a bunch of other guys from officers school. They looked like men afraid to dirty their uniforms.
Dan said, “Johnny!” and waved his huge Cuban cigar.
Johnny nodded, happy to know someone, wishing it wasn’t Dan.
Dan said, “Fucking Johnny,” like they were brothers, ready to show off his tough guy friend. “Guys, this is Johnny. We wrestled together back home.”
Johnny shook their hands.
He let them buy him drinks, the fucks.
Johnny says, “I said: hey. You heard me.”
Dan says, “I heard you,” and pushes his long greasy hair out of his face.
Johnny steps back.
His blood pressure goes to his ears, a heartbeat on each side of his head. He could punch Dan, a quick right. He could take away all the years and bring Dan back to the mat, face up, on his back, staring at the gymnasium lights. Johnny pulls his fist in, knuckles tight. It’s the way one thing is this and the other is not when both things are the same and have always been.
It was Johnny who saved the whore. He pulled Dan off, even though he was drunk, even though it was funny. “Cojones, cojones!” the whore kept saying to Dan, bleeding from a crack in her forehead, reaching up under her skirt to grab her balls.
Dan stands up. His chair rocks but doesn’t fall. The chair is wood, painted yellow. Dan puts a twenty on the table and Johnny sees the bill, $9.86, written in blue ink.
Johnny says, “You ever been to Puerto Rico?”
Johnny says, “I know you been to Puerto Rico.”
Dan steps around Johnny, without touching, not even a sleeve, like Johnny wanted.
“Don’t turn around,” Johnny says, as Dan makes the door. “I see you.”
Johnny goes to his family who won’t ask him to explain Puerto Rico or Dan or anything else because they love Johnny, they appreciate him. They’ll order together and eat their Sunday dinner and it will be greasy and good, Sunday, half a day off, the one day Johnny splurges and eats shit, the rest of the week it’s protein bars and coconut water and supplements, but today is his day, he wants the noodles and he wants to get out of here and get a drink or two or ten and maybe buy his son some shoes.
Good kids deserve shoes, good kid.
Dave Newman is the author of five books, most recently Please Don’t Shoot Anyone Tonight (Broken River Books, 2017) and The Poem Factory (White Gorilla, 2015). He lives in Trafford, PA, the last town in the Electric Valley, with his wife, the writer Lori Jakiela, and their two children.