It’s August Out There, Shaker
Saturday night has arrived, but Shaker can’t locate himself inside it. Instead he feels stationed at the far rim, peering in with bland expression, wanting to hum but not. He is unmoored on these weekend evenings when his yard work employment is paused, his silent apartment hollers at him and the radio will only attract classical rhapsodies that for certain philosophic reasons Shaker—a reformed glue sniffer—simply cannot endorse. So once his freeze-dried dinner is digested and his teeth have been almost homicidally brushed, Shaker makes the short trudge to town. Main Road is a two-and-a-half-block stretch of pawnshop splendor anchored by a fried chicken franchise that only operates between the hours of midnight and four, when the bars have released their stink-breathed denizens into the night and nobody can find the correct car to unlock. It’s a vivid scene: dozens of drunks leaned against their vehicles, jamming their keys in wrong holes with great experiment. But it’s not that hour yet. The bars are still brimming and Shaker enters the Regal Beagle, a godless sandbox of decreasing repute. Only a few heads in here, token slumps of shoulder, a man prying his buck knife from the dartboard cork. Shaker bobs his head to the crenulated punk noise the juke is blaring and takes a stool. The bartender Tobin holds a semi-clean glass under the establishment’s only functioning tap while Shaker does the stoic nod thing. He accepts the pint with a grunt and drains it in one or two parched gulps. Shaker feels good. He feels hoisted. He digs up his money for another round and finds his wallet is parched as well.
“Shitsky,” Shaker says.
“You okay, Shaker?”
Shaker considers the question for a tense minute and quietly replies, “They’re putting the continents back together with scotch tape.”
Tobin leans over the bar and examines the bare fold of fake leather in Shaker’s hands. “That is an enormous shame.”
“Only a couple bucks. I’m good for it.”
“The most you are good for, Shaker, is making the case for stricter birth control.”
Shaker gives Tobin a pleading look.
“No pleading,” Tobin says.
“But I’m a buddy.”
“I’m all booked up on buddies tonight. I’d rather redecorate my home with the staved-in skulls of deadbeats, assorted freeloaders, and other once-beautiful children.” Tobin leans towards Shaker and inquires, “What size are you around the neck?”
Shaker tries to smile but Tobin has already whistled for Howie “The Howitzer” Pulasko, a muscle-swollen bouncer overdone in salmon polo and unnaturally pleated khaki shorts that reveal too much tendon in the thigh. Shaker admires the sartorial boldness but his own innards, all eighteen spools of them, are in recoil mode. The Howitzer has an arm around Shaker, who has an arm around his guts, trying to bucket them.
“Shaker here thinks the Beagle has turned non-profit,” says Tobin.
Shaker nods and feels the arm around him, the room, the weight.
“It’s a noble cause,” he says.
“I’d pitch in a ten spot,” somebody grumbles, “to watch Howie dismantle him like one of them artificial Christmas trees.”
The heads have gathered and various voices agree. Scandalously, so does Shaker. “But I’d have to borrow the ten spot,” he shrugs.
“Pinky or thumb?” Tobin asks.
The Howitzer holds Shaker’s wrist in a puddle of beer suds as Tobin produces a mallet tethered to the cash register with nylon rope. He holds it overhead, a Nordic warrior pose. He is humming a medieval-sounding dirge. There’s simply too much pinky in the world, thinks Shaker, unable to shut his eyes against the spectacle. The heads are hushed. Then Tobin sets aside the mallet and smacks Shaker a hard one on the cheek.
“Your punishment, deadbeat, is to hustle over to my house barefoot and give my beagle dog his heartworm medication.”
“I am sans auto,” says Shaker.
“Better get started then,” Tobin tells him. “I’m over on Spruce.”
“That’s six miles.”
“Six and a half.”
“It’s the only brown house. Door’s unlocked. Pills are in the cabinet. Mena is doing her go-go gig tonight so it’s just Prince Prince at home.”
“The beagle,” says Shaker.
“Bare feet are optional.”
Shaker leans out of the Howitzer’s hug and glares at the window. “Looks like flurries.”
“It’s August out there, Shaker.”
“Sledding,” he whispers.
Two steps on the sidewalk and already the wind is rubbing the feeling off his face. August, yes, but unruly. These crazed breezes invade at night, knocking around traffic signals and turning TV aerials into lethal javelins that once morning arrives can be found stabbed among rows of pretzeled patio equipment. Shaker has to hopscotch through a slick spread of bakery trash. There are loafs in pile, muffin crusts, aborted dough. He pockets a chocolate éclair to pacify the mongrels in his neighborhood and he continues down the road’s middle, thumb up, half-hoping to flag a ride. He has already mulled his various escape routes, excuses, alibis, but he feels somehow committed to the mission. Make the trek. Go to dog. Save dog. Try not to draw homeward any more hungry strays. He imagines this endangered breed of beagle slumped on the kitchen tile, neglected and nursing some secret animal ennui along with the calamitously wormed heart. It’s only six miles, six and a half. Shaker forces each leg forward and tries to remember the last time he heard rumor of wayward hitchhikers blown off the tarmac by mysterious winds.
Instead he dwells on his old auto. A two-tone, white-and-red paneled utility van in which Shaker had installed a plywood loft, crowned with mattress, for the storage and transportation of electric amps, guitars in cases, accordion and fiddle, six piece drum kit; equipment belonging to the earliest incarnation of his then-wife’s backing band, The Fake American Embolism. Shaker maintained the van and drove it city to city while the woman and her bandmates spooned awkwardly in the crawl space behind his head. One night in Tulsa the bassist, a Hungarian lothario who sold ladies’ footwear for his day job, was plied against Shaker’s wife, inverted head to heels, sniffing her stockings. Real large intimate huffs. She kicked the fetishist out of their fast-careening van using the very same foot, and by the time they were free of Oklahoma, Shaker was getting tutored on the finer points of tuning peg etiquette. Thus he found himself promoted from mere husband-slash-driver to an Embolism by misdeed and proxy.
Shaker was confounded at first by the sheer length of his new instrument. Four strings stubbornly thick, like trying to bear down on a span of suspension cable with only a Q-tip. He harvested calluses the way some men do facial hair and his dexterity increased, although he never really figured out how to plug the instrument in. Six months later his wife’s fickle urges started twisting from rustic country into more adventurous territories, the guitars de-tuning, appliances involved in percussion, noise as tonal baste, and the band—now christened The Proud American Stigmata—was demoted from outdoor amphitheaters and state fairs to basement shows, VFW halls, smaller and smaller rooms. Shaker was demoted in kind when his wife traded him for a millionaire venture capitalist whose idea of a relaxing evening cocktail was double-malt scotch mixed with sheep placenta and human blood. The Shaker marriage, itself a hastily eloped affair, was dissolved with a Post-It stuck to the fridge that left little leeway for ambiguity or reunion: My dearest glue-sniffing spouse. Don’t forget to sweat the eggplant. Gone forever, P. Shaker had lurched around the kitchen’s harsh clinical light, straining to unknot the swirls and kinks of her cryptic cursive; his own fingertips phantom-twitching, he knew, on all the wrong notes.
Now his ex-wife haunts him across a global cartel of corporatized media—print, radio, TV—a melancholic specter of love robbed and financial assets lost, and Shaker faints at the merest whiff of eggplant.
Shaker is slinging his limbs forward with grim focus and head uptilted, knifing through the breezes and forest dark. Spruce Road is at the northeast corner of the county and as such lacks the civic infrastructure granted most third-world hamlets. The streets aren’t lit or paved, the homes are not reservoir fed. The region is policed solely by local militia, which itself is only a two-man operation. The Brothers Tully. And they are not here to help Shaker establish which of these brown homes belongs to Tobin. There are five. Shaker tiptoes around the isolated properties, hunched low and feeling much the pervy prowler. He removes his black windbreaker and prays the white undershirt will broadcast his innocence as an honest amigo par excellence. He’s willing to be shot dead for a cause, just not an ironic one.
Then Shaker sights a weight-bench in a side yard and decides he has found the correct home. He bangs the mud from his boots, scales the porch, but the door is locked. Definitely brown, he thinks, surveying the shanty from each angle. Shaker putters a bit. The windows are shut, the blinds drawn, a soft sepia glows behind the panes. Shaker arranges himself into a skeptical comport and realizes: Tobin is testing him. Will Shaker walk all this way only to turn tail and slink back to the bar in wretched defeat? Will he stand here like a pervy dweeb and gaze at the locked shanty until Tobin or his stripper girlfriend meander up the driveway in a few hours’ time? Will Shaker heft a rock and shatter a window, mindless of consequence, and without clobbering the dog?
Yes, the dog. Shaker hears no barks, no rampant licking or frolic or canine snores. Maybe the heartworm has hollowed him already. Make your mistake, Shaker thinks. Just make it quickly. And so he gets a running start and rams the door and feels everything—wood, bone, lacquer, world—give way at once. Shaker bursts through with such momentum he slams into an immediate wall, whirls, folds, and is rug-sprawled a solid minute or so, idly inspecting his freshly sprained collarbone, until he glances around and notices the Brothers Tully reclined in identical BarcaLoungers, a wall of mounted antlers and shotguns framing them in redneck tableau.
“What have you done with the dog?” Shaker asks, realizing there is no dog. Only the older brother reaching lazily for a long-barreled elephant gun. The other brother is trying to peer around Shaker to the widescreen TV. Shaker can’t resist. He follows the militiaman’s sightline and sees the image on screen: his estranged wife. She is in an old historic pavilion with a U.S. flag from the pioneer era shawled around her shoulders, an air traffic controller headset clamped on cranium, mumbling the national anthem as she dismembers a mannequin replica of Betsy Ross with a shaky chainsaw. Behind her a cloth backdrop spangled in chintz and glitter-glue announces The Fake American Orgasm. The program is some sort of tabloid hagiography and includes a rapid-fire montage of potato-faced pundits sweating profusely under studio makeup and blathering about this renegade musician’s chameleon aesthetics, bootstrap ethos, cutthroat biz sense, her authenticity. The cathode tubes buried inside Shaker’s brain hum and blacken and start to smoke. One of the TV commentators refers to his ex without acid or sarcasm as an unparalleled purveyor of the American Absurd. A chorus of smarm agrees.
Shaker lifts a leg and turns off the TV with his big toe. Realizing, also, one of his boots has been flung wide and rests among pebbles and shells at the bottom of a burbling fish tank. The TV button, Shaker notes with no small pleasure, feels rather warm on the toe.
“Seems I am the victim of the cosmic joke,” Shaker says. “But the thing is? The joke? It’s actually sorta funny.”
“Gentlemen,” he adds, “my boot is poisoning your lichen.”
Shaker returns his head to its comfortable cradle on the ground, staring at the creamly spackled ceiling, the nicotine stains and drizzle leak. He’s settling in for the imminent interrogation, the long torture, the longer shame. A gun barrel nudges him in the snout. Big toe still on the TV, Shaker clicks over to Channel Four, wheedles the volume control, and waits for the next round of entertainment—an international rugby match in which each team is foundering badly at the wrong end of the field—to resume.
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