Better People

Better People by S.M. Fedor
Cover Design by Kalin Poirier
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   Love is for better people. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to from my corner barstool here at Ronnie’s Sports’ Bar & Grill, the local dive. The room is small and filled with 9 patrons, including myself. It claims to be a sports’ bar, but there is just one TV that is set to off. As for the grill portion – I don’t think anyone has been foolish enough to try ordering something in seven years. Milos, the Greek bartender, stands idly in his position, bored of another night of drunken assholes.

   I watch the laughing and smiling couples, shadowed by the tendrils of gray-blue cigarette smoke and dim bare bulbs that sparsely hang from the ceiling. I thought here — where the highest class of customer was the fraudulent accident lawyer who was just making a quick stop to pick up a bagful of cut with a sprinkling of cocaine — I would have found someone who was beneath me. Someone whose own lot in life was so damaged that if I were to sit in their vicinity I’d look less pathetic. Worthy even, of the attention the women in the room were spending on everyone else.

   It was not to be.

   Instead, I felt my ample ass cheeks melding with the torn barstool cushion. I stared out at the couple on the opposite side of the horseshoe bar top. The man was probably in his mid 30s, but life had sped up the process to a rough 45. His eyes dart around his female companion’s body, occasionally remembering to look at her face. His hands make quick jerking motions from her thin waist to his stein of beer and back again, fearing either might disappear on him if he loses contact for too long.

   The woman herself is at this particular bar for a reason. Here she is a ghetto goddess. At any other bar she wouldn’t have gained a second look. Still, she’s pulled out all the stops. Her long fake nails run over the rough unshaven cheek of her mate for the evening. The long tussled brown hair shakes hypnotically like Medusian snakes while she laughs garishly at the story being told. Her short rayon dress clings to her, exposing the skin of her left thigh that she pretends is innocently touching and rubbing against the man.

   The man flicks his lighter and holds it to her face. She inhales on the cigarette pursed between her lips and it flares up. Briefly both of their faces are illuminated and the glow reveals all their secrets before retreating back into the dark.

   I’m going to kill myself tonight. From a time that began before my consciousness formed, there has been a monster inside me. A wild beast that tears at my mind and body. Its only purpose is to destroy. It will greedily devour those around me, but will be satisfied with just myself. The Wolf, as I’ve come to know him, is nourished on self-loathing and hatred. It has been chewing through my stomach for a lifetime and tonight he will get his full meal. I have come here as one last shot to stave him off and failed. Again. I was always destined to fail.

   Then she came in and it all changed.

   The moment the door opened the energy of the bar took an abrupt shift. She was a black hole, pulling everyone’s focus to her event horizon. The light in the bar had not changed, yet she glowed with a radiance that showcased all of her mesmerizing features. Her hair was long and a rich ebony. The face, soft and young. Her body was fit with an athletic build, balanced on firm legs that joined together to form a perfect ass. But it was her personality that owned the room. There was a fire, a passion for life, that burned deep inside her that could not be contained. She need not even speak a word and I would still be able to hear her thoughts.

   Her eyes scanned the room, reaching deep into the shadows and seeing all. A slight smile, just a hint lopsided, formed on her face. Her mouth opened and a choir of angels sang out, “Pocket aces. Drinks for everyone!”

   The bar cheered. The music pulsed louder. She walked past my spot at the bar, her scent drowning out the smoke and intoxicating me. The night turned into a swirl of color and noise as I watched the couples celebrate their free drinks. Their laughter grew louder.

   The Wolf howled and paced, until at last worn out. It lied down and began to slumber. I had to be with her, this Aphrodite. I had to become something better. For her. I did not kill myself that night.

##

   The next night I was waiting at Ronnie’s bar early. It is a Monday night and the crowd is sparse. I wait. Barely touching my beer, I watch the door hoping and praying for her return. Last night she had celebrated until last call, moving between each group to share a portion of herself. She even came to my lonely corner and asked, “Having a good night?”

   As of that moment I was.

   Now all I can do is watch the door. Flinching with anticipation the few times it opens only to come crashing down with disappointment as some common alcoholic bumbles through.

   The night grows late. My drink, still untouched, has gone flat. The Wolf is clawing at my organs once more. You fool! She would never have you. You offer nothing. I no longer know why I’m even here. My execution was stayed one night, but tonight is it. She was just one last joke for God to throw in my face.

   As I get up from the barstool, the door opens. I do not bother looking. From the corner of my eye, I see someone approach the bar. A voice – her voice, but somehow different, asks the bartender for a shot of tequila.

   I look up and there she is, but not. The fire that had burned so brightly last night is but a dull candle flickering in the breeze tonight. The hair. Her face. Her body. Everything on her hangs loosely as if it wants to drift off the bone.

   “Five dollars,” the bartender says.

   “I don’t have it tonight.”

   “Then no drink.”

   “C’mon! I bought the whole bar last night,” she quietly replies.

   “That was last night.”

   “I got it,” I say out loud to my own surprise. Me, a man whom never speaks unless put in a situation where forced to. For her though, I found a hidden pocket of courage. Her eyes are still cast downward, staring at an invisible point on the bar just beyond the shot glass.

   “I got it,” I say again, with commitment in my tone this time. “And one for myself.”

   Milos gives us both a questioning look, shrugs, and pours a second shot.

   Stepping up beside her, I take in her intoxicating scent once more. It is muted tonight, but the fingers of her aroma still tug at me. We stand in silence. Suddenly, she snaps out of her fugue state and drinks both shots in rapid succession. She looks up at last, and our eyes meet. A million shades of hazel brown that open a portal inside. I see the fire still in there, biding its time. The Wolf backs away into the dark of the wilderness.

   “Thank you,” she says and I smile.

   I order two more shots and this time we clink our glasses together and drown them down in synchronized motions. Ordering a pair of beers, we move to an empty table in the rear of the bar. She tells me her name is Alexandria. She tells me about the bad beat on the river flip tonight. She tells me about her dreams, goals, and fears; I just listen, induced into a trance by her presence. Smiling an idiot’s grin.

   The bar begins closing. Her hand rests on top of mine. “Let’s go to your home,” she says.

   I stare dumbfounded. “Are you sure?” I ask.

   She sticks a sword through the Wolf inside of me as she says yes. We depart for my home and everything is magic. Two weeks later, she moved in.

##

   Life will never be the same. I come home from work with purpose now. Not dreading the the empty, dirty 3 room apartment in the 4 story walk up. No longer alone with just the sound of insects in the walls to keep me company. No longer staring in the bathroom mirror — the bottle of sleeping pills sitting on the shelf taunting me for my weakness to even do that right — while the Wolf howls from deep within. Now when I stick the key in the door and turn the latch, the smell of fresh vegetable stew greets me. It’s sweet aroma drifting from the kitchen oven where it simmers, waiting for my arrival. And she’s there. Even after a day of cooking and cleaning the mess I call my home, she looks ravishing. I touch her, to make sure she’s real. Not a hallucination that my mind has culled out of the darkness to temper my frustrations. Her skin is soft, smooth, and oh so very real.

   We eat dinner crowded on a small filthy brown couch, a find I had picked up from up the corner on the street. I savor every bite of the meal, believing at any moment she will realize her error and leave. That this will be my last meal ever. The TV absently plays old sitcoms from another era. She talks throughout them, commenting on what was happening in her life when they first aired. I don’t speak. I want to absorb everything about her.

   She prepares herself for her evening. I stare as she gets out of the shower, the water droplets tracing down the curves of her body. She dries herself off and shimmies into her bra and panties, smiling at the way I watch in utter fascination. By 8 p.m. she is heading out the door. We kiss first on the cheeks, then deep in the mouth. I tell her good luck. She gives that crooked smile once more, turns and closes the door behind her.

   My heart sinks as I hear the latch click. What if tonight is the night she doesn’t return? I stay up all night waiting for her. I jump at every sound outside the door, hoping to hear the insertion of the key, but it’s only my neighbors returning from their night out.

   At 4:32 a.m. I hear that familiar sound as the door opens and she explodes in. Her spirit is a ablaze tonight. She sees that I am still up, giggles and rushes over to my place on the couch. Alex throws herself on me. She pulls out stacks of money from her bag and rains it down over me. We make love there on that dirty couch, rolling over the crumpling winnings of her cards this night.

   “My lucky charm,” she moans. I howl in delight, mocking the Wolf’s defeat.

   The nights she won were golden. It was a feeling of pure bliss that filled my soul in a way that I had never truly believed possible. She was my everything. We existed in a euphoria that made the rest of the world disappear. There was just us. Together.

   She didn’t always win though. Those were the odds. She’d come home late those times, if she came home at all. She’d disappear for days at a time. When she did not come back that first morning, I began to wither. I moved through work like a ghost, not conscious of what was happening around me. All I could think was what if she was not there? I was terrified to return. The Wolf was crying out once more, tasting fresh blood that emboldened him. But I had to go home. What if she was there? I needed her to refill my soul. I needed her to carry me on in life.

   I hesitated before the entrance. I considered knocking on my own door. My hands shook as I took the keys out of my pocket. I scraped the door knob once. Twice. Finally, I managed to sit the key in the lock. I breathed in deep, picturing the door swinging open with a creak to reveal an empty room. It could not be. She had to be there. An empty room meant death was calling once more. At last, I managed to find the will to push the door open. My eyelids ached from the force in which I had them shut. I stood there in the threshold of my apartment and waited. My ears strained for any sound of movement, of life within. I heard nothing. And then a whisper, so quiet I almost missed it.

   “Baby?” she said.

   I was saved once more. My eyes flew open and I rushed into the room. The living room was in shambles. The cushions of the couch had been thrown across the floor. Jars were spilled of all their contents. The kitchen cupboard doors were all at various stages of open. The TV was missing. She stood like a Roman statue in the eye of the hurricane of destruction. I ran to her and held her as she weeped on my shoulders.

   “What happened?” I at last said, after an eternity of just holding one another. The tears she had been letting fall onto the sleeve of my shirt stopped suddenly. She pulled away from me and her posture hardened.

   “What happened? What happened? I’ll tell you what happened you fucking asshole. You’re bad luck! I was wiped out. I’ve never lost like this before. It’s all your fault! If I wasn’t shacked up here with you, I would be winning like I always did. I need money. Now.”

   Her body began to heave up and down, but the tears refused to emit from her eyes this time. I stared at her. The fire inside that I was bound to, burned like an inferno, but instead of warming my soul it felt like I was roasting in the pits of hell. I pulled out my wallet from the rear pocket of my jeans. I opened it to find two hundred and thirty dollars in cash. I gave her all of it. I needed her to be happy again. I needed her so very much. I needed her to need me.

   She took the money and smiled. Immediately everything about her softened. She looked sheepishly around the wreckage of the room and picked up the couch cushions and returned them to their rightful place.

   “Sorry for the mess hon,” she said as she gave me a gentle kiss on my left cheek.

   Alexandria looked at me with eyes that are a mix of longing and pity at the same time. She places another kiss on my cheek, this time on the right side, and goes out the door. I would not see her again for four days.

   I had been tossing and turning in a poor simulation of sleep when I heard a thud on the front door. Twice more there was a heavy thud. I arose my self and slipped on a robe to cover my nudity. Walking to the door, a louder thud called to me. I peered through the security hole and saw a swirl of black hair leaning against the door. I swung it open in a rush and she fell in. I caught her in my arms and we stood there in the open doorway, holding each other. At last she came inside and we sat down on the brown crusty couch.

   “Alex?” I said and her tears began to fall. Not just a few drops, but the Mississippi River itself ran down her cheeks. She heaved and shuddered. I held her tight, not knowing what to do. My anchor to this world was turning to rust as the salty tears ran over it. She started to say words, but they came out guttural and full of saliva. We stayed there on the couch, curled up in a tight ball. Each clinging to the other to keep ourselves from drifting away.

   The morning light beaming through the window awoke me. My body ached and my head was full of cobwebs. I discovered that we were still a tightly packed ball on the sofa. Alexandria began to stir as she felt my movement. She looked around the room, assessing where exactly she was. Fear was in her eyes, but they returned to normal when she recognized that she was at home and in my arms. Alex looked up at me and gave the faintest of smiles.

   “I am dead,” she says. There is no energy in her words, no life. They are just a matter of fact statement. “Rodrigo is calling in my chips. I’m too deep in. He’s going to kill me if I don’t pay him back twenty-five grand this weekend.”

   I stare at her, lost by her words. I never knew she was in so deep. I knew she made her way through life by the risk of the cards, but I had always believed it to be low-stakes games. Enough to get by on. Sure I had my suspicions – the tears, the mood swings, the missing TV, but we had never talked about it. I did not want to disturb that fire. I just want to sit by it like a campfire and let it light my night. I realized how little I actually knew about Alexandria. How quickly this had all happened. How insane our behavior was. But then I looked into her moist eyes and knew I did not care. I did not care about any of the craziness of our lives. All I cared about was how when she was with me, the Wolf slept. I wanted that damned creature to sleep forever.

##

   That night I purchased a gun. It was my first time being around a hand gun. The Glock model 19 I was told was a popular model. Supposedly the slightly shorter grip and barrel of the model made it an ideal handgun for concealed carriers. I did not really care about the brochure sales. I just needed it in black and looking intimidating. It was surprising how easy it was to get on the streets.

   I drive in my beat-up blue Honda Civic around the rainy roads, my headlights reflecting off the asphalt as the rain drops explode. The windshield wipers beat back and forth furiously, a metronome counting down the time. My heart beats in rhythm with the clicking of the blades. I see a glow, the lights of a gas station diffusing softly in the atmosphere. I pull into a parking spot and sit. The wipers continue to swipe left, then right, then back again. I stare past them, into the window of the store. The register jockey is a scrawny kid, busy reading a comic on the counter.

   “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” I utter to myself over and over. I shift the car back into reverse. In the distance I hear a wolf begin to howl. It’s followed by another howl, this one closer. Soon a cacophony of howls are ringing out in the night. The rain pounds down harder and harder against the glass windshield, the blades no longer able to keep up with the torrent of water. The view of the kid distorts, waving back and forth in smooth liquid motions. I put the car back in park, turn the key in the ignition, and get out of the car.

   A chime rings as I enter the mart. I walk through and notice the electronic security scanners and the height chart that crawls up the frame of the door, marking off my 6 foot height. The kid briefly looks up, pushing his dirty mop of blond hair from his eyes before returning his gaze back to the Incredible Hulk comic book.

   I start to move directly towards the counter, but then retreat. I turn and walk down the aisle. My eyes scan the Twizzlers and Kit-Kats. I walk to the back where the magazines are racked and pick one up at random. Flipping through it, I see a variety of muscle cars with scantly clad women lying on them in seductive poses. I watch the kid from over the top of the magazine. He pays no attention to me. I breath deep, put the magazine down, and pull the gun out of my wet jacket pocket. It feels heavier now. It had been light as a feather when I first purchased it, but now it was a solid piece of steel. With each step I take towards the counter, it gains in weight. When I am in front of the counter, the gun hangs straight down, too heavy for my arm to lift. The kid looks up drowsily with stoned eyes. I use my other hand to help lift my arm. I point the gun at the kid. The smell of urine fills the station.

##

   I drive to the Little China neighborhood, parking the car in front of Chin’s Chinese Noodles. Its red neon sign illuminates the street in a hellish glow. I step out of the car directly into a deep puddle of rain. Water soaks through my shoe and sock, directly to my foot. Next to Chin’s is a green metal gated door and a buzzer. I press the buzzer and hear nothing. I look up and see a small camera watching me. I flash a grin at it and pull out a single hundred dollar bill from my pocket, just enough for the camera to see. A light hum sounds and I gently pull on the gate. It creeks open to reveal a set of stairs leading down.

   At the bottom of the steps is another door. I knock on it and it opens a crack, chains criss-crossing between the gap.

   “I’m here for Alex,” I say.

   The door closes with a heavy thud. A pause. Then the sound of chains coming undone. The door re-opens fully and I’m escorted into a dark room lit only by four overhead spotlights, each one shining down on a table covered in green felt and cards. Five players sit to a table plus the dealer. No one looks up at my entrance, the focus dedicated solely to the cards and the competitors around them.

   I find Alexandria sitting at the third table. She stands out there, surrounded by a group of hard-looking men. The stack of chips in front of her looks much lower than the rest of the table’s. I watch her play a hand. She folds out after the flop, leaving behind a hundred bucks in the pot. I come up behind her and whisper her name. Alex jumps in surprise. She turns and looks at me, shocked to find me in her den of iniquity. I smile and give her a kiss on the cheek. I place the two thousand and eighty-seven dollars I have in my pockets on top of her pile of chips.

   “We can do this baby,” I whisper to her and kiss her true. The men around the table chortle at the display of affection. The dealer takes the cash and replaces it with a stack of chips.

   Alexandria plays hard and strategically throughout the night. I sit in the darkness, watching my Wolf slayer fight for our lives. She loses two hands in a row, but then her luck begins to turn around. She begins growing the pile of chips in front of her. Her face is drawn tight and her eyes are steel as she surveys each hand in front of her. Soon, her pile of chips is over-flowing and the men around her begin to drift away from the tables, grumbling and cursing, “That fucking bitch”.

   At a quarter past six a.m., there are just two players left at the tables. Alexandria and a man I’ve come to know as Doctor Joel. They have played to a near deadlock. Alex has twelve-thousand dollars in chips in front of her, with the doctor having thirteen.

   The dealer burns a card. Then deals – two cards to Alexandria, two cards to Doctor Joel. Alexandria peers at her cards and I see the smallest twitch at the corner of her mouth. Joel is an animated man, no thanks to the powders he’s ingested throughout the night, and after looking at his cards begins to rub at his sweaty cheeks and adjust his hat.

   The ante is paid and the dealer flips three more cards. Queen of Hearts. Seven of Diamonds. Ace of Spades.

   Doctor Joel checks to Alexandria. Alex pauses, studying the revealed cards in the table and then raises the pot by four thousand dollars. Joel sits back. He breathes out hard and once again re-seats his hat, his finger tips covered in a gelatinous sweat. A wide smile breaks across his face, splitting his chin from his head. He pushes all his chips into the middle and utters, “All in baby…”

   Alexandria doesn’t even pause. Her chips are matching his in a flash.

   The dealer calls out, “All in, players flip your cards.”

   Alex and Doctor Joel both flip their cards over. The doctor reveals the Queen of Spades and Queen of Clubs. Alex, the Ace of Hearts and Ace of Clubs. Pocket aces. Doctor Joel sits back in his chair and puts his hands to his head. I step up behind Alex and squeeze her shoulders. She kisses my hands. We are one once more.

   The dealer burns a card and then flips one down onto the table. A Nine of Hearts. Alex whispers that I am her good luck. I whisper that she is my life.

   Once more the dealer burns a card. He looks from Doctor Joel to Alexandria and then back to the pile of cards in front of him. He places his forefinger on the top card and draws it back from the pile. In a slow, smooth motion he arcs the card over and places the river at the end of the line.

   Queen of Diamonds.

   Dr. Joel screams and begins pulling all the chips towards his belly. Alexandria throws my hands off her shoulder and cries out “No!” She turns to me and yells out in agony. She screams that everything is my fault, that I have destroyed her. I am the ruiner of everything. My cursed life has rubbed off on her. The Wolf bears his fangs.

   A loud firecracker explodes in the room. Then there is nothing but screams and cries. I’m shoved around by bodies forcing their way towards the exit door. Doctor Joel runs with his chips falling on the flooring as he goes. I see a dark skinned Mexican with a scar across his right cheek looking at me. He stands alone in stillness while everything else in the room is motion. His arm is out-stretched toward me. In his hand is a pistol. A shimmering spirit of smoke drifts out from the barrel of the gun. Rodrigo tosses the spent gun onto the table and casually blends into the exodus.

   My hands feel wet.

   I look down and find to my amazement that they are covered in blood. Alexandria’s blood. She lies against me. Her mouth breathes out bubbles of spit and red fluids. I feel her growing cold. Everything is red, the green felt of the table is gone. She breathes out the words “Bad. Luck.” and rests her head against my shoulder one last time. So much red.

   In the distance, police sirens begin screeching. As they come closer, their call sounds like wolves celebrating a fresh kill. Love is for better people. A better person than I can ever be. The Wolf howls in triumph.

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