Monday, May 16, 2011

FICTION: The Martyr By Robert Drake

Two men and a woman entered the Cornerstone Bar & Grill on a sleepy, languid Friday deep within a forgotten summer. They were promptly sat by a doe-eyed waitress prematurely exhausted from the happy hour rush just beginning to disperse. The trio took their seats eagerly but grabbed their menus with a slothful reserve that bordered on hesitancy. Only with a self-reproachful sigh did the three companions agree to split a pitcher of beer – the waitress visibly relieved to be allowed back into her dream.

With the initial obligations executed, the trio became a troupe of character actors, each descending to their primal essence. The first of the group, thusly designated by his seat in the corner, was taller than the rest by a beer bottle or more. He labored, quite futilely, to find comfort against the hard-backed benches – old, scarred remnants of a brighter summer in a more bountiful year. Finally contented, or at least dispersed, the man barely skimmed the menu before tossing it aside, a gesture as flippant as it was natural to the stern-faced bureaucrat. With the gravity of a losing general, the leader ran a hand through his brindle hair and looked away solemnly.

In contrast, the woman sitting to the leader’s right read each item like a diamond appraiser, only reluctantly allowed herself to flip pages. Outside of her own comprehension, a narrow finger traced over the laminated menu with the delicacy of a museum curator marveling a new vase. Her lonely smile and wrinkled cheeks would have been more familiar at a funeral.

Of the trio, only the sandy-faced salesmen sitting opposite the woman seemed to enjoy the prospect of a dinner with friends. Like a hungry dog, he ravaged first the menu and then the bar for stimulus. He absorbed the waitress and allowed a gentle smile. From there he followed her eyes to a solitary gentleman sitting in the corner. Distracted, the accomplice puffed his cheeks and stitched together an elevator speech that might ingratiate him to their secrets.

The waitress returned with a tall pitcher of russet tap beer and a brigade of plastic cups. Her impatient request for orders was greeted cordially: one quesadilla, a local specialty cooked by a barback who had never been west of Scranton, one hamburger, noteworthy only for its inconsequence, and a small side salad, a dreadful request for soggy iceberg lettuce and bottled blue cheese. Again, the waitress ran off, eager to be lost amongst her tasks.

Unbeknownst to the waitress, her table was home to a wanted band of bar-robbers. Their past escapades had taken them across a dozen bars in three states. A growing reputation was encompassing their impromptu revolution but had yet to breach the nearest county line. The trio remained safe, but paranoia had set in. The companions squinted into the darkness, waiting for the shadows to collect their bounty.

The sandy-faced accomplice put his hand on the table. He motioned toward the waitress and the young man in the corner. The woman and the leader made a furtive investigation and concluded unanimously that the marks were set. Outside, a speeding car screeched around the corner. The smell of vulcanized rubber seemed to mix with the beer exhaust and submerge the bar into quiet contemplation. This was apparently the cue.

The leader shuffled out from behind the table. The seat screws creaked in unison like a team of horses prepared to bolt. Annoyed, the lamp chandelier swayed angrily, tossing absurd glares to the far corners of the room.

At first, the woman showed distress. Motherly creases pulled at her eyes and brought folds of flesh down upon her lip. Seeing the impotence of her rage, she slumped behind the leader and followed him toward the bar.

As before, the third accomplice seemed the most eager. He folded his napkin and joined the procession with the dutiful obedience of a young aide-de-camp. As a patron struggled to pass the trio, the sandy-faced accomplice patted the man on the back. Invigorated by the human connection, the robber fell back in line with enthusiasm.

The waitress stiffened. Her table was gone, moving toward the bar like a slow, dreadful avalanche. Her stomach dropped. Some sensation, a holdover from an instinctual age, made her seek out a comforting face amongst the aging regulars buying new memories for three dollars a bottle. The outsider, a loner, an infrequent guest without pretension or spite, sat quietly against a row of dust-spattered windows. She moved toward his corner table, well outside of her section, to offer a refill or clean napkin.

Back near the bar, the leader held a beer bottle secretly acquired on the march. He placed it on the counter to signal the bartender, but the balance was off. A breathless second passed as the bottle teetered on the edge. Finally pushed beyond the brink by a windless gust of fate, the bottle fell. In syncopated unison an ocean of fermented hops engorged itself along the counter and to the horror of an audience lost in mid-gasp, the bottle shattered. The leader of the trio recoiled in embarrassment. Genuine regret dripped down his forehead and onto an apologetic palm.

It was an honest reaction from an honest man, but it was still an act. The artist had chosen his palette and his paint - the beer was nearly full, the spill was angled just so, the location was perfect. As the beer seeped along the wood scars it dripped onto a pair of young girls tossing back Cosmopolitans bought by middle-aged suitors. The girls shrieked. Their attendants scowled - the mood was broken and their money wasted.

Before anyone could say anything, the woman-bandit swooped in, an angel of napkins and motherly fastidiousness. She dabbed the one girls’ dress with a paper towel, the other she embraced in bar rags. The girls and their suitors were appreciative and utterly bewildered.

Amongst the chaos, the bartender appeared to sleep. Whomever had made her out of clay, had left her unprepared for the set-piece scene that wrote itself before her.

Unknown to the bartender or to the rest of the assembled patrons, the sandy-haired third accomplice had gone behind the bar. Armed with paper napkins, he went to work saving the ice box from an ignominious wipe down. For her gratitude, the bartender did not say anything about the trespass. Finally finished, the third accomplice absolved himself of his duties and left the beer-soaked napkins behind as a trophy.

A collective sigh washed across the bar – the risk of risk appeared no more. The return of summer and its unembellished sang-froid seemed imminent. Such was the true nature of the bandits.

The leader of the group followed his sandy-haired partner with predatory anticipation. His patience was rewarded as the bar lights collapsed like so many dropped candles. The shrieks followed, a herd reaction that fell in time with a new song on the house stereo.

Ever helpful, the woman lit a match. For a moment, humanity existed as a Polaroid snapshot of darkness – light only an accoutrement to shadow. A moment later the bar and its rivers erupted in reckless flame. In desperation, the woman pushed the girl and their attendants toward the door and safety.

For the old regulars and the young pretenders, the existential crisis had been solved. Meaning existed, however fleetingly, in the quantifiable form and function of the exit sign flickering above the smoke-filled entrance. The crowd, awake and awakened, ran for the door, a flood of jostling flesh that fulfilled the unfolding plan like carpenter’s chalk snapping itself.

The sandy-haired bandit and the woman turned to the leader. Still stern-faced, still immovable and discontented, he stood by the bar nearly amongst the flames. A flashlight, newly scavenged, held down his arm. He flipped the switch. Both accomplices nodded. The leader descended deeper into the bar.

Dozens of angry, confused, frightened faces, all strangers, all intent upon nothing but escape. The leader’s search continued. He passed aged gentleman scrambling for safety, middle-aged women racing themselves to the door, drunkards and petty dreamers lost in the scramble. None mattered.

Finally, the leader stopped. He directed his flashlight to one corner of the bar – the waitress was huddled against a window. In the opposite corner, the young outsider stood in shock and wretchedness. Both were frozen in non-existence.

The leader advanced, flashlight raised in menace. His first step took him toward the outsider – motionless. The second step approached the waitress – utterly helpless. Step by step neither reacted, but by the time the leader was close enough to decide between them they had converged upon each other. The two lovers were in arms, their purpose well beyond the exit sign door.

The leader made theatre with the flashlight to send the hostages on their way. They ran through the smoke like swimmers through fog – watched intently by the two accomplices pretending to impede their escape. Finally free, the leader crossed his arms, a contented smile whitewashing endless devastation.

As the door creaked shut, a silenced descended. The alcohol-fueled tempest had slept off the worst of its intemperance leaving the bar scathingly immaculate. A cool breeze revolted against the stillness. The three robbers looked amongst themselves. Time was scarce.

The plan had left the ending ambiguous. Charge into infamy like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Wait around to be arrested for grand theft-arson? In previous, failed, ventures, the robbers had disappeared accidently amongst the confusion, their attempts at surrender foiled by criminal ineptitude and karmic fate. By the time anyone got around to investigating, the culprits had already apologized and mailed compensation back to the bar. This time, impending sirens awoke inevitability.

The leader rejoined his companions and pushed them toward the door. They walked as gladiators emerging to a blood-enraptured arena, applause just out of reach. In a moment, the leader had both of their arms twisted behind them. He frog-marched them to the door.

The accomplices protested, but their pleas were lost upon the patron saint of broken men. He pushed them into the cool evening air, barely moist, still summer-forgotten. Outside, the crowd was breathless. A police officer stared without comprehension.

Before anyone had a mind to ask, the leader sprinted away. It was a baffling sight, the stern, shattered man scuttling between buildings and finally into the forest. The sirens pause just long to let him escape.

The accomplices were quickly absolved as heroic bystanders. As for the leader, no one ever figured out where his madcap flight took him. Sometime later, an urban-legend was written about the man who burned a bar and ran off toward a dying sun. Even in the stories, his purpose was never surmised, but back amongst the booze-besotted sleepers, the waitress and the outsider embraced quietly.

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