Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Red Harry

"Aw, hell, Red, we known each other too long for that," Ellie Martonak said in a reluctant, sweet, but very certain tone of voice.

Harry Redcliff was in his early fifties, Ellie was in her forties. They were sitting at a small shaky table in the semi-darkness of the Lost Anchor Tavern on the outskirts of Port Arthur. It was a small dark bar that all the major highways had turned away from as if in disgust, leaving it in the middle of nowhere. It was a cozy, dirty little place where anything might happen, but usually didn't.

Nor did the couple sitting slumped toward each other now in the dim light, balancing their elbows precariously on the table, as if waiting to see who'd go off-balance first, have any reason to be surprised about things like that-things that didn't happen. They grinned at one another with a sort of friendly chagrin; they weren't all that romantic, and both of them knew it. If there'd been any doubt about it at all, Ellie had just reminded him of it. She was looking at him now in that disconcertingly friendly way of hers and it made Red feel funny. It was hard to understand. Even when she was telling him "No," she was nice about it. Considerate. But he still felt awfully uncomfortable.

"Hell, now I kind of feel like a creep," he shrugged. She shook her head and shrugged back as if to say, "No need for that."

Harry put his cigar back in his mouth and sighed, then nodded. He could read "body language" as well as the next guy, he guessed. He'd always been able to get along in the world, as long as everybody else wanted to. He knew how to fight-you learn that quick enough on board ship-but he'd always hated it. He preferred to accept things as they were, more or less. So he was ready to take her word for things. But then Ellie screwed him up all over again by reaching out and touching him. While he stared at her, wondering what was up, she lightly patted his round beer belly a couple of times, then briefly placed her hand on his and gave him a shake.

"C'mon now," she said pleasantly.

She was shaking, very slightly, the kinky blonde hair that Red always found so pretty and always wondered why. His face flushed now and his hands felt warm and sticky. He felt funny all over, all over again. He pulled his hand away from her and made a big show of relighting his cigar.

"Oh, lord, God!" he thought. "Women have got such strange ideas about how to soothe a man!"

Ellie's actions so far were having an effect quite opposite to her intentions. It'd been like that with women all his life. There was no way around it that he knew of, no way of getting them to do it any differently. He sighed and shook his head. "Ah, well, gotta be strong," he thought, "unless you want to live without friends." He made himself sit up straight in his chair. He sucked in his stomach.

"Hell, I'll get over it," he grinned at her. "Gimme a minute or two."

"I just couldn't think of you like that," she explained. "I'd always keep rememberin' all the good times you and me and my Ed had together 'fore he died, and it'd depress me, you know? Hell, I'm sorry, Red, okay?"

She sounded sincere enough. Indeed, he knew she was.

"Oh, yeah, sure, that's okay," Red nodded, fidgeting with his thick red mustache. "I can understand that, all right. I just thought, you know, we been pretty good drinkin' buddies, and friends and all for so long now, and we always get along so well, uh... I just-well, you know. But, anyway, yeah, it's sure all right."

It was all right, too, pretty much. He didn't think he was really in love with her, not like you're supposed to be. He was only getting sentimental and lustful over her because they'd gotten so damn drunk tonight.

"Still," he thought, "she's awful nice, and not bad-lookin', neither. Even if she is past forty now. 'Course, so am I-way past."

"Lemme order us another couple of beers," Ellie said, a little more heartily than before.

"That'd be good!" he said spiritedly.

She was trying to cheer him up, he figured. Trying to make light of the pass he'd made at her. Of course, all he'd done was kiss her. "That's too personal a kiss!" she'd said sharply, and pushed him away from her.

He guessed it was all right, but he wished that he hadn't done anything at all. They'd known each other too long, they were supposed to be buddies. He couldn't imagine what the hell he'd been thinking when he kissed her that way. He was getting older, that was for sure, maybe even a little desperate. He'd been married once to about the only woman he'd ever met who'd put up with him, but she'd died of a heart attack five years ago. It had been totally unexpected.

"Like poor ole Ed," he thought. "Can't get more unexpected than that!"

Ellie's husband, Ed, had been a friend of Red's since they first met in the Merchant Marines 15 years ago. Three years ago Ed had died when the ship he was on ran into a Greek ship. The other ship had drifted away with fairly minor damage, but Ed's ship had begun exploding on impact. First a small one, and then BOOM BOOM BOOM!, one goddamned explosion after another, had shaken the ship, and no one had escaped alive. Officials had never admitted just what Ed's ship had been carrying, but a rumor had gone around that they'd been carrying some secret cargo for the Navy. It was all very hush-hush. It was bad enough that Ed was dead, but it turned out to be even more complicated. Somehow, though Ellie had been too distraught to understand it, none of the ship's records had been filed anywhere when the ship blew up. Since nothing except huge scraps of metal had ever been salvaged from the wreckage, the ship's papers were utterly lost. This meant that the records of who had been on board were somewhat faulty. Thus Ellie, like the wives of several other men whose bodies or body parts had never floated to the surface, was in the process of waiting seven years for the settlement money. The insurance company said there was just no proof that their husbands were dead. Some of the wives had tried to get the local TV stations interested in the affair, but nothing had ever come of it.

In the meanwhile, Ellie did pretty well raising her two kids. She'd gotten a job running after parts and doing paperwork at Heartfield's Garage where her husband had worked one summer when she'd gotten so mad and threatened to leave him if he went back to sea. She went out drinking pretty often, though, like tonight with Red, or sometimes with the mechanics from Heartfield's. Sometimes she'd get way too drunk and a little too morbid. She was doing it more and more lately.

"I just know damn well he's dead," Ellie said suddenly, apropos of nothing, tearfully shaking her head.

It was an hour later in the same bar. The guys from Heartfield's Garage had come in and joined them. Red had been relieved to see them, for they were always loud and talkative and he felt he could count on them to dispel the tension between him and Ellie. In fact, they had, until Ellie spoke up like that.

The others glanced up at her curiously. They'd been talking about something else entirely, but they knew what she meant. She'd said it often enough in the past.

"How's that?" Don, the black mechanic, asked her in a kindly, slightly blurred, voice. He was a new guy and had never known her husband Ed, but he was sympathetic, anyway. He was a nice guy in general, and at the moment was just as drunk as she was.

"Wouldn't nothin' keep that mean bastard from rollin' home dead drunk and wakin' me up at two in the morning for a poke if he was still alive!" she snapped. "Nothing!"

Don nodded at her knowingly and tried not to grin. Red and the others smiled. Yeah, that was Ed, all right. Soon, however, the men had forgotten about her outburst and gone back to their conversation.

"Yeah, I seen another one of them stories on TV the other night!" Robert exclaimed. "Just POOF! and then burn right up!"

"I've heard about these spontaneous combustion people before," Jason, the quiet one, laughed. "What's the deal on it, though?"

"They just bust into flames!" Don said in his soft blurred voice, shaking his head. Red frowned slightly, wondering why these guys could always sound so awed by such silly subjects. They were all at least ten years younger than he was, but he didn't feel like that quite explained it.

"One guy'd had it happen to him the same way over and over again," the head mechanic Mike Patterson drawled. "Three or four times, anyway. It was his hand; it'd just bust into fuckin' flame! They showed it on television one time. Baby, it was weird, you know?" The others nodded and murmured. They were impressed, they believed it. "It'd just burnt that motherfucker's hand up, boy!" Mike added with a chortle. "Hell, it just looked awful!"

For some reason, everybody laughed. Red grinned, too, but was still perplexed by their attitude. They said it was awful, but sounded as if they thought it was wonderful.

"Airline crashes, hurricanes, and earthquakes," Red whispered to Ellie. "Other people's tragedies make great entertainment." Ellie shrugged. She figured she knew what he meant.

"Yeah, and I read this other story about a baby that'd burned up in its crib overnight," Robert said, shaking his head and still speaking with that curious tone of reserve. "Man, there wasn't nothin' there but ashes the next morning!"

"Sounds more like gypsies to me," Red laughed. "You know, snatch the baby, leave a handful of ashes. Fool the fools."

"No, no," Robert insisted, "this was real! They proved it. You hear about it all the time!"

"That's right," Don said firmly, "it's been on TV, in magazines, everything!" Red shook his head and grinned.

"Old Red Harry over there doesn't buy this shit," Jason laughed quietly. Red was surprised to hear Jason speak again so soon. The young man was always pretty quiet, but he was dependable, and everybody liked him.

"Hell," Mike grinned, "ole Harry doesn't buy much shit at all, if you get right down to it. He's an intellectual, he don't believe in nothin'!"

"Well, maybe it's aliens or somethin'," Red chuckled, standing up and stretching. "Anyways," he announced, "I'm going to the bar for some peanuts, boys. I'm sure you can get along without me believing this weird shit for that long, at least. But one of these days you boys gonna have to figure out what you talk such goddamn nonsense for."

Robert looked puzzled and the other mechanics nodded at Red as if to say, "Yeah, sure." When he'd been gone a minute Mike looked around the table appraisingly, then said, "Ole Red's pretty strange, isn't he?"

"He sure is, to me," Robert agreed.

"Aw, Red's a good man," Don said. "Ain't no need to call him strange!"

"He sure can be bad-tempered sometimes, though," Robert said, shaking his head. "It's his damn red hair showin', is all," Mike smirked.

"No, it's not; it's his bad disposition," Ellie said suddenly, sounding pissed off. "Goddammit, you lay off of Red, okay? All you dumb bastards are strange, if you ask me."

"Aw, hell, we was just talkin'," Mike said soothingly. "We didn't mean nothin' by it."

"It's better to just not talk about all that stuff," Ellie said. "That's what I think."

"Damn, those boys are weird!" Red thought as he stood at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice him. Spontaneous combustion, hell! Of course, it was always possible that all that stuff was true. In which case, he reasoned drunkenly, maybe the devil was alive and well and dancing a jig right here at the Lost Anchor Tavern! He turned around and looked around the room carefully, expectantly, looking first at his friends, then at the dance floor where a few couples were dancing. Red was thinking that if anybody did burst into flame like that, he'd sure like to see it. But he wasn't going to believe stuff like that just because somebody started talking about it. Red tried to get the bartender's attention again, but the man was busy with other customers. He turned around and watched the dancers again.

"They look so comfortable with one another when they dance," he thought. "As if each one owns the other one and nobody minds it." He wondered if it was real.

"I'm so tired of all this Goddamn waiting," he muttered to himself, glancing at the bartender. "Dog tired."

Just then, Ellie came over and dropped down exhaustedly at a nearby table. She lit a cigarette and looked depressed.

"To hell with the peanuts," Red shrugged and sat down beside her.

"Those bastards just talk, that's all," Ellie mumbled. Red looked at her blankly. "I can't hardly fucking stand it, you know?" Ellie said insistently.

"What're you talking about, anyway?" Red asked her.

"I don't know. I think I'll just go throw myself in the fuckin' river, that's all," Ellie said in a miserable tone of voice.

"Christ, you've threatened to do that plenty of times before and you're still here," Red told her irritably. "It's getting to be mighty old hat, you know?"

"Well, to hell with you, too!" Ellie snapped at him in a fervent voice.

Red and Ellie spoke in low, increasingly argumentative voices while the mechanics at the other table were talking more and more loudly about the fire situation. Red was vaguely aware of Robert saying something about gasoline tanks.

"You just can't get one empty enough or dry enough to really be safe. You weld around it and, hell, one day BOOM!, it's got you! I've seen it happen, boy!"

Red forgot about them and began to get mad. He realized just how sick and tired he was of Ellie's whining and threats. He was vaguely aware that they were both drunker than they ought to be, but he didn't care, she'd complained one damn time too many.

"Well, hell, why don't you just go on and do it then?" Red asked her in a disgusted tone of voice. He'd had it with all this crap.

"Well, goddammit, I will!" she declared, jumping to her feet. "Don't think I won't!" She leaned against the table and swayed slightly as Red jumped up, too.

"Well, that's just fine with me! Hell, I'll even drive you there!"

"Well, just come on then!" she snapped. She sounded like a woman whose integrity had been questioned one time too many. She grabbed Red's coat sleeve and half-dragged, half-led him out of the bar.

Outside they got in his car, a beat-up old Volkswagen bug. Red drove-none too well-until they got to a small dark bridge suspended a few dozen feet over the river. There were light poles all along the bridge, but most of them were out. "Probably shot out," Red thought, for some reason annoyed with the darkness. "Nothing but a bunch of fuckin' cowboys around here when the sun goes down!" Toward the center of the bridge he slowed down, not really intending to stop, but just to show her he was ready to stop. He figured that any minute now she'd back down. She'd laugh or cry or something and then they'd go on. Before he even came to a full stop, however, she'd opened the car door. He glanced over and saw her drunkenly, casually, taking a step out of the car.

"Hey! Hey, wait!" he hollered.

It was too late. She was already out of the car. He didn't know whether to stomp on the brakes on not. He decided he'd better let the car roll a little bit clear of her. By the time he'd stopped, taken the car out of gear, and jumped out to look for her, she was on her feet again, though looking pretty battered. She was in the middle of the lane, directly under one of the few telephone poles with a light still on it, kicking off her shoes one at a time and watching them carefully as they flew upwards toward the light. The shoes turned end over end in a graceful arc, then plummeted down onto the road. As the last one struck the pavement, she suddenly began tearing at her blouse, all the while swaying and weaving across the highway, constantly moving away from him. It was clear to him, though it wasn't clear why, that she was headed toward the rail on the opposite side of the bridge. Why didn't she jump off of the near side if she was going to jump, for God's sake? As he stared at her, wondering what the hell to do, Red realized that something was moving beside him. His car, its engine still running, had begun to roll forward.

"Oh, hell!" he yelled, and ran to catch up with it. The car door was still open and he slid in on his knees, leaned forward, and jerked the emergency brake. He turned the ignition off, grabbed the keys, and threw them on the floorboard angrily. "I can't believe this!" he roared as he turned sideways again and slid out of the car. He stood up too quickly though and hit his head on the door-frame with a resonant thud. He saw stars for a moment.

"Oh, God!" he moaned, grabbing his head and holding it. If there was anything in the world he hated, it was stumping his toe or bumping his head! Suddenly he became distantly aware of Ellie's voice again.

"Don't think I won't do it, 'cause I fuckin' well will!" she was screaming, still thoroughly engrossed in her own drama. Red groaned. It didn't matter if his head hurt or not; he still had a suicidal woman on his hands!

"Goddamn, shit, hell!" Red screamed at her incoherently.

He'd meant to tell her something sensible, something intelligent and kind and reassuring, but his head hurt so bad, that those were the only words he could get out of his mouth. He hadn't thought she was serious from the beginning and he wasn't absolutely certain that she was serious now, but she was thoroughly scaring the crap out of him. What was he going do if this crazy woman really did jump off the bridge and drown? By now Ellie had one arm out of her blouse and was tearing furiously at her brazierre with one hand and the buttons of her skirt with the other. She was crying loudly and her tears were streaking her makeup. He'd never seen her look uglier.

"Crazy idiot," Red thought as he raced toward her, "she keeps tryin' to do two things at once!" If he didn't get a move on, though, she might finally succeed in one of them, and he sure didn't want to explain all this to anybody! He could hear it all now: "Uh, yeah, officer, I brought her down her so she could jump, and then she jumped. I helped her all I could." He'd be in the slammer in a minute flat.
"Stop it, Ellie, stop, stop!" he yelled frantically, running as hard as he could, harder than he'd run in years.

"The hell I will! I'm goin'!" she hollered. "I've had it, once and for all!"

Just as she got the top button on her skirt loosened and her brazierre half unsnapped, he finally reached her and grabbed her in a tight bear hug. By then, she was pretty near the rail. Despite how scared he was, he knew he wasn't a bit more sober than he'd been back in the bar. He wasn't sure if he could actually handle this or not.

"God, she's a hellcat!" he thought.

He was having a terrible time hanging onto her. She was madder than he'd ever seen her, fighting, kicking, and clawing at him with all her might. He remembered picking up a cat when he was a little boy and not putting it down quickly enough. He'd paid for that mistake. Ellie's attack seemed worse than the cat's somehow. By now, he knew enough to put a cat down, but he couldn't make himself turn loose of Ellie even though she seemed determined to scratch his face off.

"Shitfire!" he thought. "How you supposed to go and decide to just let a woman drown herself, anyway?!" He needed a straighter mind and more time than he had this night to decide that little problem. His brain felt like it was about to burst and his heart was pounding. If she didn't calm down soon, he might just let go of her and let her jump!

A car came down the road at a high rate of speed. Red Harry, perhaps thinking that help was at hand, accidentally loosened his grip on Ellie and she jerked out of his grasp and ran toward the rail. Inexplicably Red jumped out in front of the oncoming car as if to wave them down, but they were too close. The driver jammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt, but not before it'd struck Red a glancing blow and flung him aside like a rag doll. Ellie, standing on the rail, half-dressed and ready to jump, looked back and screamed Harry's name. She covered her face with both hands for a second, then looked with horror at the stopped car.

The mechanics from Heartfield's jumped out of it, all hollering and asking questions at once. Jason and Mike reached them first and pulled Ellie away from the rail while Robert and Don ran to Red Harry and dragged him out of the road, leaning his back against one of the nearby telephone poles.

"Is he alive? Is he alive?" Ellie cried.

"Yeah, he's alive!" Jason said. He didn't sound very sympathetic.

Red, looking up at his friends, was dazed, confused. All of them except Jason and Ellie looked so angry! They looked like they wanted to beat him senseless!

"What the fuck's goin' on, Harry?" Mike hollered at him.

"She-she was gonna jump in the river!" Red gasped, sinking to his knees. "I was... I was just trying to stop her." Even as dizzy as he was just then, it seemed to him that his explanation sounded fishy. That must be why they looked so angry.

"Is that right, Ellie?" Jason asked. Ellie nodded her head and started to cry.

"Oh. Jesus, Red, we're sorry. We thought you was-up to something! Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"I don't know," Red said, frowning slightly. "My leg might be broke."

"Oh, God damn it, I can't believe this!" Mike said, shaking his head. He felt terrible; he was the one who'd been driving. Red suddenly grabbed his shoulder and grimaced.

"Christ, what's the matter, Red?!" Mike asked. "Your face looks awful! Are you dizzy?"

"I think I'm havin' a heart attack, boys," Red said. He sounded calm as he slid sideways off of the telephone pole and all the way to the ground. "I never felt so awful in my life."

"Oh, no!" Ellie screamed at the top of her lungs. "Oh, God, I've killed him!" She tried to pull away from Jason, but he restrained her forcefully. He had no way of knowing if she meant to run to Red's side or simply finish her jump in the river.

"Oh, Great Christ, what've we done?" Mike said, his face turning white. He hadn't liked Ellie's remark at all; he didn't want to hear anybody talking about having killed Red!

Jason pushed Ellie toward Mike and said roughly, "Here, hold her!", then ran over to the fallen man. Robert and Don helped lift the older man up while Jason took off his jacket and put it under Red's head. Ellie sounded like she was choking as she desperately tried to stop weeping.

"Christ, Mike, take Ellie and get back to the car! Use the CB to get the police. Have 'em send an ambulance, quick!" Mike took off running like a scared rabbit, dragging Ellie behind him. Behind him, Ellie looked just as frightened.

"Well, this'll make 'em a good story," Red Harry thought idly as he felt a cold numbness move down through his body.

"God, we're sorry, Harry!" Jason said quietly, leaning over him.

"Me, too," Red whispered, for some reason staring straight at Robert just before he closed his eyes. "It's not as good as, as..."

His voice trailed off and the rest of his words were inaudible to Robert. He stepped back a little from Red. Jason leaned closer to him. Robert, afraid of getting any closer, thought that Red seemed to be making a terrific effort to speak.

A few seconds later Jason stood up and sighed.

"W-what is it?" Robert asked.

"He's dead. Jesus, he's dead."

"Goddammit!" Robert said, nervously running his hands through his hair, then hurriedly lighting a cigarette. "Jesus in hell!" Jason looked at him curiously then and frowned, almost as if he was looking at a bug. Robert got more nervous than ever. He turned away and walked quickly back toward the car, muttering "Somebody's got to tell Mike, I guess."

Later, all of them waiting together for the ambulance or the police or somebody to show up, they'd mostly calmed down. Even Ellie, though she'd never stopped crying, was quieter. Suddenly Robert cleared his throat and spoke.

"Listen, Jason, I been wonderin'. What was it Red Harry said at the end?"

"What, you mean he said something?" Mike asked, looking uncomfortable.

"Yeah," Jason sighed. "Something..."

"Well, what was it?" Mike asked nervously. "I'd kind of like to know. I mean, I know it probably don't matter, but still... Lord, I don't think anything's ever gonna make me feel any better for a long time. Red was a good man."

"He sure was," Don said.

"What the hell do you keep saying that for?" Robert asked him irritably. "You didn't even know him, least not as much as the rest of us. We known him for years."

"Well, that's true, I guess," Don nodded. "I guess it's just I'd say the same thing about any of you, you know. I'd hope somebody's say it about me, too. If I was dead, of course." Robert frowned, wondering if Don was getting on his nerves on purpose or by accident. He shook his head and walked away from the group a little.

"Well, sonofabitch," he muttered under his breath. "What the fuck you supposed to say about a dead man, anyway?"

"What was it he said, Jason?" Don asked.

"I don't know what he said, that's what's weird. Or I didn't understand it. It sounded like he was saying some kind of damn thing about 'spontaneous combustion', of all things! Now does that make any sense to you?"

"Not much!" Ellie sobbed, starting to lose control again. "But I tell you one thing; I'm never going back to that goddamn bar again! Never, do you hear me, never!"

"Shit, me, neither!" Robert growled.

"I ain't never even gonna drink again, I don't think," Mike said weakly.

"I hear the ambulance comin' now," Robert said, turning toward Don.

"Yeah," Don yawned, rubbing his eyes with both hands, wondering what time of the morning it was. He was tired, desperately tired, but trying not to show it.

"Yeah, I hear it, too. I think maybe Ellie needs it more than Red Harry does, though," Don said.

"I think maybe I do, too," Mike said.

His voice sounded shaky, and when he sat down on the ground suddenly, the others ran over to him to see what was wrong. He looked up at them stupidly, his head wobbling slightly as he sat there in a semi-faint. Nervously, weakly, the others began to laugh. They didn't know what else to do.


6th draft: 07/23/03
©1990 Ronald C. Southern

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