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Vicious Ghosts by Damon Stewart
published in Volume 6, Issue 4 on December 31st, 1999

Christ, it makes me wince just to think about it.


I was driving home, coming back from a daylong conference at the other end of the state. It had been a long day, and by the time I got on the road there were only a few hours of daylight left. It was late November, and the frozen landscape was resplendent with the hues of decay-- gray sky, yellow grass, black trees. Darkness, I had thought, might be an improvement.

Sitting through six hours of seminars, followed by a monotonous drive through the dead countryside had its effect, and it wasn't long before I started to zone, turning the driving over to a mental autopilot while the rest of me was vacant--lost in the lines on the road, the dimming horizon, the taillights in front of me.

I don't know how long I had been like this when something on the side of the highway broke my concentration. I don't know what it was exactly, I passed by too quickly to get more than an impression out of the corner of my eye - a dark fluttering shape, like the beating of large, black wings. I turned to look, but instead of the dark thing all I saw was a road sign, offering directions to my old college.

"Next exit, Tinman State", the sign said.

"2 miles," it added.

Now, I had been back and forth on this stretch of highway at least 10 times over the years, but I'd never noticed that sign before. That seemed odd, and I was also thinking the strange flapping thing, when suddenly the exit appeared. Without thinking I wheeled over from the far left lane, cutting off a pickup I pretended not to see. Braking hard through the sharp corner of the exit ramp, the car listing heavily as I squealed through the turn, I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach, you know, "this is a mistake." But I ignored this gastrointestinal advice, instead telling myself, "it's been long enough, how can it hurt?"

Never ignore your gut instinct.

I hadn't been back to Tinman since graduation, and I never thought I'd return. I hadn't kept up with any of my friends from those days, either. This was a mix of intention and too much to drink. It's not that I forgot them, it's just that by the end I wasn't sure which ones I had pissed off for good and which ones got the joke. So I chose the clean break. By the time I felt able to talk to anyone, years later, it had been so long that it'd be a cold call. No more point, you see. They didn't care anymore and neither did I.

Besides, everyone reminded me of Lucy. As soon as I can deal with it, I used to tell myself, I'll get back in touch with some people. But she was the backdrop to every other relationship. Separation was impossible because she was dyed in the fabric of the time. Besides, they would all want to talk about it, and I still can't take that.

So when I left school, I left it all. Moved on, got a job and met someone else. Married, career, etc. And doing pretty well nowadays too. Laying off the booze helped more than I care to think. The only downside of success is that it can highlight former depths.

But there I was, coming back to Tinman on a whim, telling myself that I'd just maybe have a quick drive through, check things out "for old times sake." I had a lot of good memories there too, and thought that it might be ok to relive some of those.

Yeah, right. Let me tell you, I have this fucking wonderful capacity to forget. . . no, that's not it-to block, to ignore the past, but, like, I know what I'm blocking out, but I pretend I don't. Understand? I don't either, anymore. But I did then. "For old times sake." My God, I don't even know what the hell that means.

The State University at Tinman anchored one end of the City of Tinman, a once thriving port town located at the juncture of the Fulton River and Lake Erie. In its day, the city was a robust manufacturing center. When I went to school there, you could still see the old factory shells littered about on dead-end streets and along abandoned railroad tracks, gently fading into rusted oblivion.

That hadn't changed.

I was well within the city limits before it hit me. I saw this old gray warehouse, a ruined hulk, abandoned and canted to one side. I had no connection to it; was never inside it or anything. But it was one of those things that form a landmark on the mind's map. After leaving the highway, up to that point, I'd driven past a couple of bars I used to go to. Nothing. But when I saw that building, man. I started to feel the old times. And it was just the good vibes; the other stuff hadn't hit.

As I continued, the geography of the city began to merge with the landscape of my memory. No concrete recollections came to the fore at first, but every soon block had a location that brought back feelings, sort of a reverse deja vu - I knew I had been there before, but just couldn't quite remember it.

But it wasn't long before some things began to seep through. Another mile went by, and then I saw the diner. Bam-there it was, a clear recollection of the two of us eating lunch there on some hungover Sunday. I'd had ordered the turkey club and she got a cheeseburger.

It was then, when I thought of Lucy Harker for the first time in years, that it almost ended.

I got so lost in reminiscing that I nearly smacked into a car in front of me that had stopped for a light. I hit the brakes just in time, smashing into the present but avoiding the car.

All things considered, I can't say if it was bad luck that missed me or bad luck that I missed it.

Shaken, I pulled into a parking lot and told myself to just turn around and get back on the highway. It was starting to snow, coming down heavy, it was almost dark, and home was still a few hours drive.

But some things are never that easy, you know? Decisions that seem so obviously impulsive in hindsight have, at the moment of their conception, an unarguable logic that slips away with time. Anyway, just as I was getting ready to turn around, I looked down the street and saw it.

The Coalbin Tavern sat by the road, about a half-mile ahead. It was an urban island, surrounded by a concrete parking apron on three sides. "Genny" and "Coors" signs hung in the window with electric vigor, suggesting to the weary that they need only venture inside to find the grail. Or several of them.

"Oh hell, why not?" I remember asking myself. "Just one for the road and then I'm outta here. It's been years." And so, without any further consideration (that I can recall at least), I popped the car into gear and drove straight down the hill into the bar's parking lot.

The place hadn't changed much. It was a scruffy cinderblock box, with black paint peeling off like tiny, reptilian scales. Nevertheless, for all that it lacked in aesthetic appeal, the Coalbin was a landmark to thousands of Tinman State graduates. With a sharp entrepreneurial eye, the owner of the bar had established himself at a strategic location, to wit: one quarter-mile from the campus. Owning the closest bar to the kids made him a wealthy man, at least it should have, since my attendance alone must've paid the mortgage on the place.

Back in the day, they crammed in as many as could fit. The terribly meek and the hopelessly drunk were pressed up against the walls, unable to squeeze through the mob of people, smoke, and music blasting through the speakers with such force as to become a physical presence. Shit, I remember being stoned in there once and having a conversation with the music. It bought me a beer. On weekend nights, it would be 100 degrees inside, dead in the middle of January. I'd stare out the window, drenched in sweat and watch the thick snow piling down on cars, swirling about in abstract descents that matched the chaos in my alcohol-soaked head.

I got out of the car and walked to the front door. The snow was already covering the ground. I was startled by a streetlight that suddenly snapped on and cast out a pale yellow glow; it actually seemed make it darker. I stepped up to the entrance and pulled open the heavy wooden door, pausing at the threshold to look around.

Inside, the place was dim and empty. The bluish glow of television sets provided most of the illumination. It seemed smoky, as if a light fog of cigarette smoke remained from the night before. The sour tinge of post-bottle fermentation lingered about, and I guessed the floor hadn't seen the rough caress of a mop for some time.

The bar itself formed a huge rectangle in the middle of the room. Liquor bottles were stacked on an inner wooden island along with the cash register and various drinking paraphernalia. The T.V. sets, three facing each long plane, hung from the ceiling above the island. Tables and chairs were scattered throughout the room.

I had my choice of stools surrounding the bar. I picked one in the back that faced the windows so I could see out onto the street. Throwing my coat over an adjacent stool, I loosened my tie and sat down, looking over at the bartender. He got the message, and put down a tattered newspaper.

"What's shakin' pal?" he asked.

"Not much. Looks slow today."

"Early still-- give it a couple of hours, it'll be packed. What'll ya have?"

"Genny draft. Pint."

He silently poured the glass and set it on a napkin in front of me, then went back to his paper.

I took a gulp of beer and looked around again. The foosball table still sat in the corner shadows by the side door; in the opposite corner sat the pool table. Even from a distance I could see that its green felt cover was torn and stained. The floor around these devices was worn with years of combat, spilled beer and cigarette ashes.

The beer tasted good. I took another drink, a long, slow guzzle that brought me halfway down the glass. I waited for the burp, felt the rumble and used the extra space to polish off the pint.

It was so easy. I signaled to the bartender, and he set another cold one in front of me, all the while maintaining a polite silence, as if he understood that a reunion of sorts was taking place.

I took a deep breath, inhaling the fumes like a smoker taking a long-awaited drag. Picking up my fresh glass, I walked over to the jukebox that sat to one side along the wall. I scanned the titles, looking to see if any of the old tunes were still there. I selected a few that seemed familiar, and continued to wander about, stopping now and then to look around or stare at the bar from this angle or that, struggling to recall the circumstances of past visits.

Pint #2 was gone by the time I got halfway around the bar. I made a pit stop for another, then completed the circuit while finishing #3.

Let me be clear on this- I had no intention of getting drunk, I wasn't chugging those beers with the goal of getting plastered. I just wasn't paying attention to what I was doing.

Sitting back down in my seat, it occurred to me that this was my usual spot in the old days. A learned behavior, unused for years but never lost, must have taken over and guided me there when I walked in. I grinned, happy in the knowledge that I still had it.

"Hey, another please-- when you get a chance."

Pint #4 was deposited on the scarred surface in front of me, and I remember pausing for a moment to reflect upon the contents of the glass. The random patterns of bubbles in flight, the soft shades of yellow and foamy white, the crisp texture as it ran down my throat. And that sour/bitter taste.

Yeah, only 3 pints and I got all misty-like about my beer. But even now there are certain things that I miss-- when you get in the right mood, with just the right amount of drink swirling around in your head, and a good tune on the juke . . . Calm descends, and you just sit and smile. It would be nice if it just stopped there, but it never does.

Lunch was but a distant memory, and those three glasses that I poured into my empty stomach began to gain momentum. I could feel their effect, almost imperceptible at first, as an alcohol-laced fog of white noise rolled in, gently obscuring the landmarks of the present. Meanwhile, I just sat there and ordered another beer, then another, and another.

I don't know exactly when, but it was probably around #6 that things began to get hinky. The bad memories, the whole point of my exile, began to thaw and cast loose, like icebergs adrift in my perception. All that beer . . . I didn't just start to remember the past, hell, I tripped and fell into it. I mean, one minute I was sitting there all tipsy and not thinking about anything in particular, and the next thing I know is--

--it's about 10:00 pm and the place is packed. A hit song is pounding into the crowd, something about this guy asking a girl to look at his tattoo. I'm talking to Lucy's best friend Sarah. The three of us had been whooping it up on the town since noon, and we ended up at the Coalbin. We were propped against the bar, smoking cigarettes and idly slurring at each other.

Sarah turns to me, and out of the blue says, "You know, you two ought to get married after graduation."

We both laugh, but neither one of us says anything. But I can tell by the way Lucy is looking at me that she is really thinking about it. I get that feeling in my stomach, you know, like "holy shit, this is real." I feel really good.

Lucy walks away, mumbling something about finding more smokes; Sarah and I remain to guard our precious barfront property.

"So," Sarah says, "I mean it- wouldn't it be wild if you two got married?"

"Well, I dunno. You think she-"

"Yeah," she says, looking at her glass. "Lucy would kill me if she knew I told you, but we were talking about it yesterday. She really loves you, Pete."

Man, I'm feeling great now, I'm smiling, just basking in the whole thing. I turned to the bar for another round, I'm going to buy us all another shot and toast to our future-

--the vignette ended. I snapped back to the present, wondering what was going on. The place was starting to fill up, and I was afraid that I might have done something really strange in public. But no one was staring at me, so I just shrugged my shoulders and kept drinking.

I know I should have stopped there; you'd think a minor hallucination would've been a sufficient warning. I can only tell you that it didn't even occur to me to slow down, much less stop. It was automatic; I just nodded for another round, and there it came.

And I only nodded because I was afraid to verbally order anything for fear that a slurred request would be rejected. That's how drunk I was, I was actually worried that they'd toss me out of that ginmill while I still had money. Hell, I heard of a bartender there who once cut off a paying customer, but he was promptly fired and run out of town.

Another pint was set in front of me. By this time I had lost the dexterity to pull exact change out of my wallet without dropping it. So I just set a pile of cash in front of me, ones mostly, and let the bartender do the work. Then I proceeded to slowly drink it away, a small green hill destroyed by a bubbling flood. The slightly blissful calm was gone, and I sat there only numb, watching the faces of past presidents get washed away by glassed waves.

People kept coming into the bar, smoking, talking, drinking, creating the background din that used to be so familiar. But the presence of the crowd only hovered at the edges of my perception, providing a backdrop for more trips to the past. Support for the lead actors, if you will, because I slipped again, got thinking about my old buddy Jim.

He lived in the room next to mine in the run-down house we rented with a few other guys. He had a sappy way of hooking up at the parties we threw; it always annoyed me. Near the end of the night, he'd go to his room and sit in the middle of the floor. He would kill the lights, but leave the door open just enough so someone coming down the hall could see that he was there. Cat Stevens would be on the stereo, but the real gimmick was the guitar. The biggest cliché in the world, and it worked great. Jim would be strumming along, sipping his beer (he always seemed to have a couple ready for unexpected company) and softly singing along with Cat. The inevitable girl would peek in, go "ohh, what's wrong Jimmy?" and it'd be all over. They didn't even know what hit them. I'd see Jim the next day, lying on his bed looking thoughtful.

"That's so fucking corny, I don't know how you get away with it," I'd tell him. He'd just smile and give me the finger.

"Hey buddy, it works. Try it, I'll let you borrow my Cat Stevens. But you gotta find your own guitar."

But I had my own approach--I just got drunk somewhere and ended up with Lucy.

So there I was, sitting in the bar thinking about Jim and Cat Stevens, when I glanced to my left-

--and saw Jimbo at the bar. He was looking back at me just as the bartender dropped off two handfuls of bottles for us. He winked and waved. I waved back--

--and snapped out of it. Evidently I waved at the bartender, who walked on over, happy to be of service. I think I mumbled something about another; at least that's what I got.

I knew, in a general sort of way, that it wasn't good to be physically acting out one's memories. But I couldn't really focus on the problem, since with the bartender was standing in front of me with an expectant air about him, as if there were some obligation on my part yet to be fulfilled. I looked down at the bar, and saw that my stack of money had evaporated.

"Ah," I said, hoping he would understand this subtle response as meaning "No problem, good sir, for I have other means." He looked sophisticated, and I felt it safe to assume that I was dealing with a gentleman. He patiently waited until I managed to get out the plastic, despite dropping my wallet for the 20th time and knocking over my glass and the guy's next to me.

You know, bars should require people to check credit cards at the door, like guns and Dobermans. They just don't mix with alcohol.

"Damn the torpedoes and put the whiners belowdecks. Full speed ahead barkeep, and keep a full one in front of me," I said, or meant to, anyway. It probably came out like " nuther, plea", but he got the message. A cultured lad, like I said.

It all sort of gets jumbled again, but there was a walk to the bathroom that stands out. I don't know why, I'm sure there were many such trips, but I can only recall the one. "Walk" is dignifying it bit, a controlled lurch would be more accurate. Like saying I "opened" the bathroom door when I body-slammed it. Good thing I hit the door, though. I remember hunching down in a corner for a breather; I think I fell asleep for a minute or two.

Wow. And that's not the low point, either.

But I remember thinking that it was refreshing.

Anyway, I was in the bathroom for a while, and by the time I eventually made it back to my seat I was ready for another. God, I remember what I did next-- I grabbed my glass, stood on the rungs of the stool, and hoisted the beer, offering a toast to "the good old days". I managed to spill only half the glass on my shirt. Note to myself-tip glass towards face after opening mouth.

Despite this faux pas, I bravely polished off the rest, climbed back down and looked across the bar-

--and saw Jimbo, Tom, Bobby and Merk standing by the foosball table, looking over at me and waving. Someone yelled, "Where's Lucy?" I looked around, suddenly aware that I hadn't seen her for some time. I turned to ask Sarah where she was--

--and got an elbow in the ribs from some kid screaming at the bartender for a beer. I fell out of my reminiscence, gasping like someone who stumbled into a pit of icy water. For a brief, lucid moment I realized how wildly drunk and out of control I was, and told myself that it was time to leave. I'm pretty sure I started to head for the door. But I must've slipped again, because the next thing I know, I was sitting at a table in the back, this time a shot and another beer in front of me.

These days I can't even think about that night without shaking my head. Hell, for all I know there were other people already sitting at that table when I plopped down on the seat, waving my arms around and mumbling to myself. You ever see a drunk do that, wander around and talk to himself? I have. I used to wonder why. I figured they were hallucinating, a mix of mental illness and alcohol, maybe some drugs too.

Now I know what it is. It's not pure whiskey-laced craziness. I mean, with most of them at least, things don't just pop into their consciousness and strike up a conversation. No, they're just talking to themselves, to their past, trying to carefully explain to a friend or relative why they zigged when they should have zagged. Put in context, I'll bet the discussions are quite rational.

It's pretty obvious once you've been there yourself.

I got to arguing with Sarah and Jimmy at the table. I tried to justify my actions, explain why I was sitting there with only shades of past friends. I explained that I wasn't mad or too good for them, it just was too much. I had to leave it all behind, couldn't just let go of part and move on with the rest. "It was all or nothing folks. Lucy was all, so I choose nothing."

I knew I had said that out loud, and glanced up to see if anyone heard. Something in one of the windows caught my eye, and when I looked over . . shit, it still gives me chills.

I thought I saw Lucy's face, and those sad, brown eyes staring right at me. I looked around to see if others noticed, but if they did they were pretty cool about it. Then it was gone, but next to me sat Sarah and Jimmy, staring at me just like Lucy was.

That was it. I freaked, started yelling, "Listen, we all drank too much back then. That night. I didn't know. I didn't know. Sarah! Your were her best friend and you didn't know either! Jimmy! Where the fuck were you? I'm sorry, I'm so sorry . . "

Some guys at the table next to me had been enjoying my performance. I had noticed them earlier, watching me and grinning, but was too far gone to stop myself. But then someone said something and they laughed, loud, and it finally sunk in that I was the source of much entertainment. I was not happy with the interruption; it ruined my concentration and caused my friends to scurry back into the dark. I turned to my audience and slurred, "Fuck you, assholes."

They stopped laughing. One of them said something. I didn't hear it clearly but I got the gist of it.

Things must have escalated from there. I don't recall walking out of the bar, but next I remember standing outside, behind the bar, in a dark corner of the lot. I was facing one of the kids, his buddies stood behind him. A small crowd had formed and a detached part of me noticed that about six inches of snow had fallen on the ground. And I also knew, with that same dead-clinical observation, that I had been in this particular corner of the parking lot before. But I pushed the thought out of my mind; I had more immediate problems.

We went through the usual preliminaries of name calling and pushing. I couldn't say much, just another mushed "fuck you" and a poor attempt at a shove. I couldn't push too hard; I was trying not to fall over. Then he took a swing and hit me in the stomach. I couldn't breathe and I started feeling nauseous. I took a ponderous step forward, and swung my left fist as hard as I could at the approximate area of his face. He didn't move. I missed and stumbled forward into him. He just stood there, holding me up and laughing while saying something to his friends. Then the beer and that last shot gave me the coup de grace, abruptly unlocking my knees.

I didn't even try to break my fall. I dropped, my face smacking the top of his knee that he had brought up hard. Boy, I remember that clearly enough. A sharp pain in my mouth, despite the alcohol padding-turns out I had bitten the tip of my tongue off. It would look bad and feel worse in the morning.

I hit the ground and lay there, the wind out of my sails and the sails torn down.

The kid leaned over and started screaming names at me-- "crazy old asshole, what the fuck you gettin' drunk here for? Go home, ya fuckin' loser," etc., etc.

Then I felt a lurch in my stomach and a clot of saliva in the back of my throat told me that I didn't have much time. I got to my hands and knees and lifted my head, feeling the blood, warm and heavy, spreading down my neck.

My counterattack: I crawled forward and threw up on the kid's shoes. That shut him up; they had been very white, very clean and very expensive, I'm sure.

He kicked me two or three times for that. I began laughing hysterically, the booze and the pain, the memories of my friends, the memory of Lucy, all mixing inside my head. But it was his last kick that did it, a good shot to the side of my head. Thank God he was wearing sneakers; puke encrusted as they were, at least they were soft. It almost knocked me out anyway, and I fell to my side and rolled face up, staring into the sky, watching the patterns of snowflakes and shooting stars intermingle, drifting to earth or winking out of existence.

That must've been a cute picture- me laying in the snow, covered in blood and vomit, a few feet away the kid and his friends jeering, and surrounding us was the crowd, laughing, talking, drinking.

Well, I had had enough, and just gave it up. I let it all come back.

Lucy was as blind drunk as the rest of us. The last thing we had done together was a series of tequila shots. God, we were alternating them with small glasses of beer. You know those small glasses them sometimes give you, the 10 ouncers? The Coalbin used to give you one of those with your beer if you got there early enough. I still don't know for sure if we had a reason for getting so drunk. Probably Jimmy said something like, "hey, 'cause it's Tuesday."

So we got twisted. It was cold that day--20 below, I think they said later. On the way into town that afternoon, we had joked about how if we drank enough, we wouldn't freeze if we fell asleep outside on the way back.

It doesn't work like that.

They think Lucy was outside at least three hours. The cops, her sister who came up from Pittsburgh, my parents- "But didn't you wonder where she was all that time?" they all asked.

No. I just assumed she went outside to throw up, then walked home. Or at least that's what I told them; actually, I asked myself the same question for years.

Later that night, when the lights went on, and I stumbled outside and saw all those people running behind the building, I went over to see what it was going on.

Sarah is on her knees next to Lucy, crying and holding Lucy's head in her lap. I don't see Jimmy, where is he? Then I kneel down next to Sarah and look at Lucy's, face -oh God, it is the worst thing I have ever seen. Her face was white, chalk white. It almost matches the snow she's laying in. And her eyes, wide open, staring, I swear, right at me. I look into those dead eyes, and I lose it .

I threw up, started crying, yelling. I don't remember what happened after that. I woke up in the hospital, lashed down with those velcro restrains--they couldn't sedate me 'cause of all the booze, so they just left me there 'til I dried out. Turns out Jimmy had gone looking for her about half an hour before they found her, but he passed out too. at least made it to some girl's car. She called the cops when she found him; he had to be treated for hypothermia.

The next day I left the hospital, caught a ride back to my house, threw my clothes and stereo into my car, and drove out of Tinman. I more or less gave up the sauce, just had one or two once in awhile, just with dinner. And I put Lucy, Sarah, Jimmy, and everyone and everything else associated with Tinman deep down inside, locked, watersealed, and to remain forever undisturbed.

Until I came back.

The kid had given me one last kick, this time in the ribs, and walked away. "You ok man?" someone from the crowd asked. I didn't answer. I just lay there, and got an idea. I started waving my arms and legs back and forth, and made a snow angel for Lucy.

When the cops picked me up and walked me to their car, I turned to admire my handiwork-it looked pretty good, I thought, except for the blood.

I was taken to the hospital for stitches, then spent the night in the local jail. No dreams came; and I drifted off with a head full of the white buzz that permeated everything. That was a good thing, actually, there's no telling what awful things would have come for me in my sleep.

Waking up in the drunk tank was an unpleasant new experience. The hangover was, naturally, horrific. I didn't just drink too much; I poisoned myself.

Facing a county judge at 10:00 am was also a new experience that added a significant degree of embarrassment to the whole ordeal.

I was fined for Disorderly Conduct. Around noon a cop gave me a ride back to the Coalbin to pick up my car.
It had been towed.
The Coalbin was open, so I went in to ask about the car. Good thing I went in too, since I had yet to sign the credit card receipt for the previous night's boozy séance.

I eventually got the car. By the time everything was sorted out it was late in the afternoon and I was out over $850. That was a lot, but I was from out of town. Some things never change.

On the way back I had to stop and pull over twice; I got heart palpitations so bad I was afraid I was having a heart attack.

I told my wife most of the story, the highlights anyway-stopped for one drink, had 50, got beat up, etc., etc. I left the part out about the hallucinations; she's worried enough about me as it is.

That was awhile ago. I haven't drunk much since. And when I do, it's only during the day, only one, and preferably at or close to noon-I like to have the sun on me, warm and casting no shadows. Sometimes, every great once in awhile, I'll toast to Lucy, holding the glass up to the light and looking at a diffused sun through the pale liquid.

But I never stare too long.

They say "never look back." The cliché has a nice ring to it, but no one ever explained to me why.

I'll tell you why - if you look back, you might see ghosts of the past.

If you do, be very careful.

Make eye contact, and they'll kick the shit out of you.

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