Joe drove down the mountain in the rain. When he reached Route 212, he turned towards Phoenicia. His old high school district covered a thousand square miles; half an hour later as he crossed its western boundary, he felt a twinge of nostalgia and relief. It was like graduating again; his mind was free to drift forward.
At tech school in the Air Force, he used to spend Friday and Saturday nights in the BX with a guy named Shannon. The BX was always jammed with G.I.'s drinking cheap beer and eating French fries. One man tried to keep up with the empties and the dirty dishes. He was bald, slow moving, friendly, and particular. His cart was organized to hold as much as possible on each trip. It seemed like the original dead end job, but he did it well, never flustered, taking pride in his cart and the tables that were clean for moments. He told Joe once that he was saving money to buy tools so that he could help in his friend's garage.
As Joe drove, the rain and fog lifted, revealing lonely bays and wooded hillsides. Route 30 curved endlessly along the banks of the Pepacton Reservoir. Joe had the highest entrance score they'd ever recorded in that tech school. Sergeant Quimby told him, reading it, unbelieving. Joe was an athlete, a most likely to succeed guy; yet there he was every weekend in the BX with Shannon, fascinated by the aging bus boy loading his cart. And Shannon? He was from Ten Mile Creek, south of Pittsburgh; what had happened to him? Joe decided to cut through Cat Hollow and over to Roscoe on Route 17. He followed 17 west, taking his time, enjoying the October colors. He had lunch in Hancock and stayed overnight in a motel outside Painted Post.
The next afternoon he was in Ten Mile Creek, coal country. A black hill in the distance, the highest point around, turned out to be a slag pile. Containers suspended from cable were hauled up the pile, tipped over, and returned upside down. The top of a silo, last sign of a buried barn, waited a few feet above a spreading shoulder of slag. The air was gritty and had a sulfurous tang.
He stopped outside an American Legion hall and walked into a dimly lit bar. In one corner a fat man sat upright before a video poker machine. Only his right hand moved as he inserted quarters, one after another. Joe sat at the bar, three stools down from a short guy who was staring over the top of a half empty glass of beer. The bartender moved a step in his direction and waited.
“I'll have a beer,” Joe said, putting a five dollar bill in front of him. The bartender was about forty. He had a blonde crew cut and a face like a poker chip, Robert Redford run into a door. He set the beer down, made change, and resumed his position. It was oddly as though he hadn't moved at all.
“I was in the service—with a guy named Shannon. Long time ago. Said he was from around here.” Silence. Friendly place.
“Which service?” Shorty didn't turn his head.
“That'd be Bobby,” Shorty said.
“Yeah,” Joe said, “Bobby.”
“Jacky, he went in the Navy.”
“Bobby was a good guy. He around?” Shorty glanced at the bartender. They had a committee meeting.
“California,” the bartender said.
“California,” Shorty confirmed. “Stayed in and retired. He's out there cashing checks with eagles on 'em.”
“Shit,” Joe said. “Would'a liked to seen him.”
“Two more, Floyd.” The gambler said, putting a twenty on the bar.
The bartender laid two quarter rolls soundlessly next to the bill and asked, “You come around just to look up Bobby Shannon?”
“I, ah, well, got sick of working. Had some money saved. Thought I'd take a break, look around.” Shorty shook his head. “I mean, what do you do after . . . “ Joe meant, after you'd done pretty well, at least compared to these guys.
The bartender said:
“Beware of gnawing the ideogram of nothingness:
Your teeth will crack. Swallow it whole, and you've a treasure
Beyond the hope of Buddha and the Mind. The east breeze
Fondles the horses ears: how sweet the smell of plum.”
“Mitsuhiro, 17th century,” the bartender said. For an instant his eyes came at Joe like horses jumping the gate.
“Who are you?” Joe asked.
“Pretty Boy Floyd,” said Shorty. “Best athlete ever come out of this town.” There was a blaze of sound from the poker machine followed by a crash of quarters. Shorty turned his head. “I'll take some of that, Earl.”
“Can't win if you don't play,” Earl said.
“Used to pitch for the Pirates,” Shorty said. The bartender's expression didn't change. Joe noticed that he stood balanced on both feet.
“Why aren't you teaching in a university somewhere?” Joe asked him.
“You know Bob Dylan's line about the difference between hospitals and universities?”
“More people die in universities. Also . . . ” He did a quick soft-shoe shuffle. “I drink, so be it.” A trace of amusement crossed his face. Mitsuhiro, Dylan, and Mr. Bojangles; one, two, three. A silent ump pumped his right fist. Joe was gone.
“Let me buy a round,” Joe said. About four beers later he got into the truck, blinking. “Jesus, Batman, Ten Mile Creek, hell of a place!” He made it to a motel and called it a day.
(from: Joe Burke's Last Stand)
John Moncure Wetterau