backtotop
ashcano

Categories: Short Stories

“Slug, your feet are burning.”

“Shut the fuck up,” he groaned, a single lick of flame tickling up from his shoe. “I was saying something.”

“I knew it,” said Tom. “I saw it coming.”

“But you weren’t going to tell me,” I said.

“I wanted to see how long I’d beat you by.”

The baseball game crackled in front of us on the sports bar’s television.

“Will both of you shut up,” screeched Slug. “I was saying something.” I tossed what was left of my drink out onto his foot. The scorch mark was shaped like an anchor. “Fuck, why did you do that?”

“You were on fire,” I told him.

“Nope, no I wasn’t.”

“Okay, you weren’t,” I relented. It was a fruitless pursuit, convincing Slug of anything.

“Anyway, I’m talking now.” He paused, then looked deliberately into his drink as he twirled the stupid stirring straw between his fingers. He poked violently at whatever elaborate citrus the bartender had plopped in there, mutilating the fruit into bulbous chunks of pulp. The Blue Curacao splashed up, staining his sticky fingers. It caked the inside rims of his fingernails aquamarine. He wanted one of us to say something—to acknowledge the heinous crime we’d conspired in by interrupting him—but Tom and I weren’t giving it to him. This wasn’t our first rodeo. We weren’t letting him have it.

“Yeah, okay, so back to what I was saying,” he said, lifting his head up a bit and swallowing defeat in a big, fruity gulp. He was drooping over his barstool, and his eyes were blue and empty. His long nose pointed straight out and veered off like a broken compass, and his legs ached down to the ground like capsized masts. His entire body was the Sloop John B. “The shadows on the wall Plato’s thing,” he said.

“You’re missing the whole context,” I said.

“Slug, move your chair over,” Tom spat through his big red beard, waving his massive hands. “There’s lava by your feet, and you’re gonna lose them.” I could see the dirt underneath Tom’s fingernails and the rusty flecks of blood between the dry cracks in his skin. He was right though. The lava was building up, and the place was getting hot.

“Fuck off.”

Rise, rise!” shouted a green-clad beggar sitting out front of the small building. He’d been out there for hours. I’ll get back to him in a bit.

“Jesus Christ,” Tom said, getting up and grabbing Slug’s stool, then dragging it down along the side of the bar. Tom’s body completely eclipsed Slug’s scrawny frame. Slug protested the entire ride, flailing around like Tom Hanks in that movie where he married a volley ball. I don’t know how old Tomato still had so much strength.

“Can I please just fucking talk?” Slug howled, now on my left instead of my right. I poured Slug a slug of whiskey. The bartender had left a while beforehand, and I wasn’t dicking around trying to make another one of those dinky little cocktails. I poured another whiskey for myself and laid some some cash on the bar out of principle. I made a last drink for a friend who couldn’t be there.

I put my faded leather wallet back into the holed pocket of my washed out, colorless jeans.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Get on with it, Slug.”

He glared at me briefly through glassy eyes. He had terrible circulation, and his waxy skin would always get this cobalt hue to it whenever he yelled too much for his body to oxygenate his blood.

“Alright, okay, fine. I’m all flustered now. The shadows on the wall? Like you pretentious shitbags have been going on about? That’s always a Plato thing. That’s all I’ve been trying to say. Let’s just move on.”

Yes,” said Tomato, clinging onto some gross amber ale for dear life “Plato did talk about shadows. And walls.”

“Sniffer would have my back,” Slug sneered.

“It’s the allegory of the cave,” I spouted, wanting them to know I knew.

“Uh, yeah,” said Tomato, glancing at me, then back to Slug, “But those aren’t the shadows on the walls we were talking about, Slug. You’re being an ass.”

“Then which ones were you talking about, huh?” asked Slug. “Pratfall.  Check and mate. Get me another drink.”

“Pompeii, you ignorant fuck,” I shouted, flailing my free arm in disgust. “Pom-fucking-peii. You know, the one where the volcano killed all those people and turned them into shadows? Volcano? Lava? Get it?

“I know what fucking Pompeii is,” he said softly, looking back into his drink. He reached for a pretzel and started tearing the grains of salt off one at a time. “Jesus,” he whimpered.

The T.V. behind him shorted out loudly and fell to the ground, but we ignored it. The baseball game was ending early, was all.

“I just think, you know, whenever someone says shadows on the wall, they’re almost universally talking about Plato. You know?”

“Christ almighty,” Tomato said. He reached over the bar with his bulky, sunburnt, plant stalk arms and grabbed another bottle from the icebox, soaking his burgundy flannel in the process.

“Rise, rise!” interrupted the green clad vagrant again, bellowing from just outside the bar’s gaudy western style doors.

He was the only one that had stuck around when the magma started gushing. Or maybe it was lava. I don’t actually know the distinction. Our guy who knew that kind of stuff stuff—Sniffer—wasn’t with us anymore. Sniffer was a friend of ours years ago. He’s the one I poured a drink for earlier. He had had an aneurysm at his kid’s baseball game some years back. It was fucking tragic. But when he was still around, he knew everything about rocks that had anything to do with anything. He would have been right up there on the hot stuff, probably pissing his name into it, too. Rocks and baseball. That was Sniffer.

“No more about Pompeii,” Tomato said. He sounded sad.

“But it’s so relevant right now,” I protested. Or whined, I guess.

Slug dove in, “What about Plato? Enough of him too, or…?”

“Fuck off, you little shit,” Tomato said. Slug laughed. Then I laughed too. Tom drained his beer and rolled hi bloodshot eyes (he was always rolling his fucking eyes), then finally joined in.

Rise! Rise! Rise to your graves!” Green cried outside.

“Fuck,” I said, realizing we couldn’t ignore him any longer.

“Shit,” said Tomato, realizing the same thing.

Slug got up and went for the door, his burnt sneaker crunching like crumbling toast every time rebounded off the floor. He kicked at one of the swinging doors and the whole frame flew off. Green, who was sitting right by the entrance, looked up at Slug in complete disbelief.

“Hey, guy,” Slug said.

“Yeah?” Green asked. He was calm. Light reflected off his shirt, giving his whole body a key lime glow.

I nodded to him. “The bartender’s gone, so the brew’s free. We’re all gonna die, probably. Wanna fade away with us?” I asked from down the bar.

“Okay,” Green said. Slug offered him his hand and helped him off the ground.

“Hi again,” Tom said with a salute.

“Hey there,” I said when he got closer, pulling up another chair.

“Got another cigarette?” he asked Tom.

“Yep.”

Like I promised, here’s Green’s story: the poor bastard had been outside all day, dressed head to toe in his grimy green rags.  It looked like he lived under the awning in front of The Volkano, which was the shitty bar we’d decided to visit for our let’s-do-something-exotic-together-before-we-all-die’th reunion. The place was named after the then-dormant volcano it was built adjacent to.  When we showed up, Green was half asleep in the dirt while some kids were throwing baseball back and forth over his body. He gave us some spiel about rising up to our graves—as opposed to from, which I thought was weird—and smoked a cigarette with Tom. He had looked dead. I would have let him in myself if Slug hadn’t beaten me to the punch.

We’d been to the Volkano once before a couple decades ago, so we pooled together whatever miserable money we had and booked a place nearby. I’d like to thank my dead wife’s insurance payout for making this whole thing possible. She died of some heart thing.

Whenever I say that, though, everyone gangs up on me. How could you not know the name of the thing that killed your wife? Well, assholes, you were right all along. I know what did the old lady in. We all cope with things in different ways. Mine’s distance.

We eventually migrated to the other end of the bar, away from the open patio, in order to keep up with the burning flow of things.

“I don’t know,” said Green, his beard now full of bourbon and ashes, “I kind of can see how he’s getting Plato, but Pompeii’s definitely more relevant.”

“Fuck!” Tom shouted, flipping over a bar stool and sending it sinking into a mound of lavma.

“See!” I shouted. “Relevancy. That’s the key.”

“Well, the wording’s still off!” said Slug, a pile of salt and a pile of bare bar pretzels on either side of him.

Tom came and sat back down. “Fuck me. Fuck all three of you. It’s fucking Pompeii. We’re turning into Pompeii shadows—no, you know what? Let’s call them scars. Because that’s what they fucking are: scars. They’re just shitty little scorches of would-be people living their once-were lives. Okay? There. We figured it out,” huffed Tom. He was red in the face like an old tomato.

“Now that? That I get,” said Green, swaying with his drink. “That makes sense to me.”

“Fine,” I said. The T.V. turned back on from the floor, our team’s star was pitching. I had a whiskey with a ton of ice, but the ice couldn’t keep up. There wasn’t anything that could. We were nothing but sweat and ghosts.

“Fine,” said Slug. “I guess we’re all just gonna fade out like all of Blunder’s fucking clothes. No harm, no foul.”

“Fuck off,” I said, taking the insult harder than I should have. I finished my drink, then started another. “Do you think the whole island’s going to burn?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Tomato said.

“Gotta rise sometime,” Sniffer said.

“Yeah, fuck ‘em,” Slug said.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“Fuck us,” Tom said. Whispered, really. Slug shrugged. Sniffer asked for another one of Tom’s cigarettes.

“I guess that’s a wrap,” Sniffer said, adjusting his glove. The glove was green and leather; I’d never seen one like it before.

“I’m gonna miss my boat,” Slug lamented.

Tom was silent.

The distance was closing in.

They all smiled, one by one, waiting for it. They turned, until altogether they were facing me, looking right at me. Their faces itched across the front plates of their heated skulls. Sniffer’s grin, the same shit eating grin he had the night I’d met him, stretched and tore into the bar. Splinters filled the gaps between his teeth.

“You curly headed fuck,” I moaned. He said nothing, just smiled.

I sat perched on my stool as it sank. I was the farthest from the flow. Gently, I pushed my hand up under my drenched shirt. The fabric was much heavier after soaking up so much sweat. There was no color in me. With more force, I was able to work my hand up to the left side of my chest. I placed it there for a moment and felt for a pulse.

“So stupid,” I said.

“So small,” I said.

I waited.


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