The Corner: Chapter Two

Chapter Two

I’d settled into my post-Corner life quite nicely. Waking up early is 10am. Late is dusk. I got the house in the divorce, which managed to be amicable since we didn’t have to see each other. You’ve got to love no fault divorce laws. The place has seen better days, but haven’t we all?

I try not to spend too much time in the house, which doesn’t have as much to do with the smell or the mess as you’d think. It was cute little place once upon a time and I remember how absolutely bursting with pride I was the day we bought it. I had a wife, I had a daughter, and now I owned property like a real-life grownup. I’d never thought it was going to happen, but then one day, there I was. Homeowner.

Now I take a perverse pleasure with how my outlook has begun to affect my surroundings. What once was a symbol of responsibility and stability is now a monument to giving up. It’s a small two bedroom, but it may as well just have one since there’s one room I never go near anymore. That’s a little difficult since her door is right across from my bedroom, always there and smiling at me with fairy stickers and “Monica” screaming at me in big, puffy sticker letters with soul-destroying cheerfulness.

Most nights I sleep on the couch. And by sleep I mean “drunkenly pass out.”

The place is mostly empty since I never got around to replacing what Helen took with her when she left. The carpet still hasn’t quite given up the indents of the end-tables and chairs, like its still waiting for them to come back and it wants them to know they were missed.

I could move, but I’d have to pack the place up and that’d require the thoughtfulness and decision making skills of a functioning alcoholic, and with the exception of my little side project I’m trying to be as non-functional as possible.

I mainly stay because I don’t know what to do with her things. I can’t just throw them out, but I can’t bear to look at them. Locking them in her room to think about what they’ve done is the best thing I can come up with.

The “not-moving” plan has the added bonus of being able to look at that corner every time I come or go. I’d be lying if I didn’t occasionally wake up on that very spot in the middle of the night, trying to figure out how I got there.

I’m amused by the fact that I’m not from this adorable little town but now I can’t bring myself to leave. I grew up in Pennsylvania and Helen and I met at Collier College down the road. After four years nearly-wedded collegiate bliss we moved here to Barnesville, because gosh darn it, we just loved this little neck of the woods. It was the perfect compromise. Not home to her or to me, but home to us.

There’s maybe 2,000 people in Barnesville and they all exude that perfect Midwestern small-town charm that makes the tourists just grin and feel a little sadder that they sold out and moved to the suburbs. Aside from those of us that thought it’d be the perfect place to raise kids, it’s a town that produces people either born to die there or born to get the hell out.

Monica was born just barely a year after we were married, which was six months after we graduated. I can look back and honestly not recognize the smiling go-getter that I was, so sure that nothing was going to stand in the way of my dreams. Heck, our dreams.

Barnesville was a jail of “ours” that I was never going to escape.

My brilliant idea was pizza. Somehow, Barnesville was just down the road from a bunch of perpetually lazy and stoned college kids but had nothing to show for it when it came to fast food or late night delivery. I was a lit major but even I sniffed gold, and within six months of graduation, my college buddy Melody and I opened the Pizza Barn on the outskirts of town, near enough to campus but still close enough for the townies.

See? It’s funny because the town is called Barnesville and we renovated a barn and made pizza in there. And yes, there are a shitload of barns. I assure you it is fucking adorable and the tourists eat it up with a goddamn spoon and ask for seconds.

So there I was, slinging pizza with my best friend at my side, my best girl at home and a little one that I was keeping in frilly dresses and candy. Soon the place was a full-fledged restaurant with pizzas and salads and steak dinners and the whole nine yards. Mel ran the kitchen and I did the back room stuff since I apparently had an aptitude for it. Planning ads, rolling the money over, making the good decisions. Here’s to type A personalities.

It amazing how much all that stuff falls to the wayside when you see your kid get run over.

Mel told me to take all the time I needed to get over it, which turned out to be about 10 months. With a pained look on her face, she offered to buy me out. Since I stopped giving a shit I accepted, getting a nice lump sum of cash in the bank so I could focus my attention to my new career: being miserable.

It was right around then when my little epiphany began to swirl itself into a full-fledged plan. If she hadn’t bought me out I would’ve offered to sell, because I knew this was going to be taking up all my time and I didn’t need to be hassled with trying to make money.

Another benefit to staying in the house was that it was walking distance to Sandy’s, our delightful local dive bar. I’d become a near permanent fixture thee, showing up early and often getting broomed out at closing time. I’d never spent any time there before so it was a perfect place to not be reminded of little girls and empty houses. Centrally located in the sparse three block area that served as a downtown, Sandy’s was the Local Bar and not the slightly more upscale Tourist/College Kid Bar (Donnell’s Pub) which had great success serving watered down drinks and having Karaoke. Every now and again a group of braver-than-smart Collier kids would waltz in, wanting to blend in with natives and find something interesting in blue collar working man’s culture to write about. If the cold shoulders don’t give them the right idea, then the questioning by whatever drunk small town Alpha-male happens to be there will. They may be from my alma mater, but damn if it isn’t funny watching them squirm when they get asked “You a college boy?” Even I had sense enough stay out until I was a “local.” Even after all these years it’s provisional.

That morning I rose with my usual lack of enthusiasm and walked to Sandy’s. The last vestiges of winter were still lurking about, hoping someone would pay attention to them and put on a jacket. Even still there were a couple of the skate kids with their permanently scowling baby-faces, a couple of tourists taking in the first buds of spring, and Chatty Cathy.

People either didn’t know what her real name was or didn’t care enough to ask. She was one of those local figures that everyone knows, wandering around downtown muttering to herself, asking for cigarettes and spare change. Word was she had a health-care worker that kept an eye on her, but from what I could tell she was doing alright on her own. Some days she was more coherent than I was. She was pear shaped and perpetually slouched, hair matted down and cut unevenly.

“Hey HEY buddy,” she said as I passed.

“Hey,” I nodded, holding out a dollar for her.

She took it, nodded, and shuffled further down the street.

“Ain’t you a sweetheart.”

I shrugged, looking over my shoulder at Johnny. “It’s not like I need it.”

He cackled at that and put an arm around my shoulders. “Showin’ off is just gone get you in trouble, son.”

Johnny Wicker is another one of those local figures that everyone smiles and nods at, but when they do they keep their hands in their pockets and make sure their wallet is still there. Checking to make sure they aren’t missing any fillings isn’t unheard of either. When he’s not holding down odd jobs he’s holding court at Sandy’s, telling hunting or fucking stories. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. Near as I can tell he’s about my age, but smoke, weathered skin from outdoor work and a lack of prominent teeth makes him look northy of forty. I’ve felt his rough, calloused hands slap my face more times that I can count in the past year, almost always followed by a drunken hoot of laughter and a “I’m just playin’ with you, son.”

In my new existence, he’s my best friend.

It’s odd because we have nothing in common aside from a love of drink and thanks to my “fortune” I keep him in a healthy supply of it. He buys the occasional round, but for the most part I’m there to listen to his stories and have him chuckle at my College Boy ways. Or, even better, my Pizza Boy ways. My bringing of the Pie to Barnesville has, in some weird way, made me a local celebrity. I used to laugh it off but swell inwardly with pride, but that was BC.

Before Corner.

Now it’s an irritation, because not only do people know me as Pizza Guy, but now I’m That Guy Whose Kid Got Run Over. I’ve waved of too many drinks and sympathetic shoulder claps than I can stand, but there’s only one person’s free round I didn’t dare wave off, and that was dear ‘ol Johnny Wicker.

It was last fall, just as the cold weather was settling in. Sandy’s was hopping with folks trying to keep warm and I was fast on my way to becoming a regular. Even Chatty Cathy was in the back, rocking back and forth and holding a quiet conversation with her beer. I was slouched at the bar, pretending to watch the basketball game on the TV when I felt someone sit down next to me. When I saw it was Johnny I still had enough sense to be a little curious as to why, in a place full of plenty of people willing to give up their seat to him, he had graced me with his presence. I hadn’t seen him in the bar much since I’d been coming there but he told me later he was doing some work with his brother out of state. I’d never met Johnny’s brother but from what I’d heard Ray was just like Johnny. Just meaner, bigger and crazier.

I sat there staring and when Johnny noticed me he turned, face screwed up in a drunken expression of disbelief. Whatever he was going snarl at me was lost when he recognized me. “You’re that guy, ain’tcha?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m a guy, yeah.”

He burst out laughing and punctuated it with a playful slap. The people sitting on the other side of me quieted, and tiptoed away. “That’s good. You’re a guy. Shit yeah, you’re a guy. You’re the fucking guy. You…” He took a long drink from his pint. “You’re the pizza guy.”

“That’s a-me,” I said, ignoring my stinging cheek and not caring if my Italian impression was going to get me another one. Or worse.

He laughed so hard he spit up most of his beer. “Shit yeah, you’re that guy.” He downed the rest of his beer and cleared his throat. “I heard about your little girl.” He shoved his pint glass forward on the bar and waved Lorraine over. “Give us a couple more.”

It took me a second to realize he was buying the round, so I downed mine and pushed the empty glass next to his.

“Thanks.”

He just nodded. “I got a little girl. Lives in Kentucky with her mother. Fuckin’ bitch.” I think he was talking about her mother, but given the Wicker family tree you can’t be too sure.

When the drinks came, I held mine out to him and slammed his drink into mine. “To the bitches,” I said.

“Shit yeah!” he thrust his drink even higher. “TO THE BITCHES!” He drank and slammed his glass down. One of the other guys across the bar caught his eye, and Johnny got halfway off his stool. “Yeah! To the bitches, motherfucker! I mean your fuckin’ mom, too.” The called-out son of a bitch just nodded and turned his attention towards someone else that wasn’t going to kick the crap out of him.

“You see that?” Johnny said, slapping my shoulder.

“Shit yeah,” I cackled, getting into the spirit of things. I’d never been on the other side of the bullying spectrum and I could finally see its appeal.

Johnny and I are not social buddies. We do not go out and hunt or fish or talk about our feelings, primarily because I don’t want to get shot. We meet at the bar, we drink at the bar and that’s it. We laugh and we’re loud and despite all the miserable bullshit that’s been my life over the past year.

The new me hollers and laughs at the top of his lungs and doesn’t care what anyone thinks and stares down random strangers while the old me sits on the remains of my common sense, surrounded by rest of my brain drowning in alcohol and testosterone.

And grinning, monstrous Johnny Wicker is my chaperon in this brave new world of hedonistic ass-hattery.

“So what’s the plan, son?”

“Same old shit,” I said as he guided me towards Sandy’s warm, smoky embrace. “Drinkin’ and cussin.’”

“Amen to that, brother,” he says, shouldering open the door. “Honey, I’m home!” he bellowed to Lorraine behind the bar. She rolls her eyes at him and gives me that look out of the corner of her eyes. Lorraine is the only person at Sandy’s that knew me BC and there are some days when I want to write the whole place off because of it. She’s been running bar there probably longer than Johnny or I have been alive, and with her age and bar-backing zen she gives off a motherly vibe that lets me know that she’s none too happy about the current state of my affairs. However, being a regular and a good tipper has probably done a lot to stay her wicked tongue.

Johnny and I got a table in the back, and he waved one of the waitresses over and put in an order for a pitcher of Bud. “He’s buyin’.” I nodded, because really, what is there to argue?

“Fuckin’ A man, I can’t tell you how much it kills me seein’ you waste your money on that retard.” There’s irony there, but I leave it alone.

“What can I say, I’m a soft touch.”

“I bet you are,” he snickered.

We sat in silence for a couple of minutes and then: “Motherfuckers let me go yesterday.”

He’d been picking up some work on the Collier campus doing car work on some of their college vans and his firing is about as surprising as my generosity when it comes to liquor.

“What happened?” I didn’t care, but it was obvious that he was sour about it and that meant there was going to be no letting it go unless he got whatever it is they did to him off his chest.

“Those fuckers, they said some fuckin’ bitch said I was sneaking around her fuckin’ dorm room sniffin’ her panties. Can you believe that? Do I look the kind of guy who has to go around sniffin’ panties to get a thrill?”

Not only does he look exactly like that, he looks like the captain of the Olympic Panty-Sniffing team. The beer comes and I just shake my head as I pour our drinks. He snatches his and downs half of it in one greedy swallow.

“Those college girls, man, they wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with me if I was interested them. Shit.”

“That’s rough, man. I told you that place was a little fucked up.”

“Not too fucked up for you, college man. Mr. I-got-a-degree.” This was one of his favorite talking points, and why I’ll always be a sidekick in Mr. Wicker’s superhero universe.

“A fat lot of good that did me,” and not a single ounce of venom for that sentiment was feigned.

“Not only that, I mean, this is fuckin’ ridiculous, but my tires are going to shit on my truck. I was counting on that damn money so I could replace ‘em. Now this shit.”

“Aw, do you need some cash to tide you over?” He snarled and pitched the napkin he’d been strangling at me.

“Fuck no I don’t want your charity. What, you’re gonna give me money like you do with the retard? That how you see me?”

“Oh yeah, you and her. Miles of similarities. Look, I could loan it to you.” I leaned in close “Someday, I may come to you with a favor,” I mumbled, stroking my cheek and channeling my inner Marlon.

He smacked my hand away from my face. “Quit bein’ cute.” He took a drink. “I can’t fuckin’ stand how you can just sit on your ass all day and drink and not have to work.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ve got maybe another couple months worth of ‘easy living’ before the pizza money runs out and then we’re going to have to find someone else to fund our little beer parties.”

He sneered at that. “Shit. I’ll be workin’ again by then, and you’ll be on your own sorry ass. Why do you think I’m not takin’ your damn money?”

“Good point. I wouldn’t want me crawling after me for favors either.”

“What?”

“Exactly.” I took another drink. I don’t know why I was so nervous, since I couldn’t have scripted this into the plan any better if I tried. “Which is why, my friend, I think I may have some work for us.”

“What the hell kind of work can both you and I do? I don’t know a damn thing about flippin’ pizzas and you sure as hell don’t know your way around an engine shop.”

I nodded. “This is why this is different. This is special.”

“What’s so damn special about it?”

“Remember what you told me about what you did at that place that one time?”

“That . . . what? What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

I leaned in a little closer, close as I dared without being slapped. “That house. In Cantersville.”

Johnny got red as soon as I mentioned the house, but I added the Cantersville so he knew that I remembered exactly what he’d said. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about myself is that I’m not a blackout drunk. Johnny, however, is and in a moment of intense drunken weakness he’d let slip one of the ventures he’s most proud of. Two years ago, he and his brother snuck in to an elderly couple’s house after they’d heard that they kept their life savings in a safe in their living room. He never said exactly how much they got off of them, but the swell of pride he got telling the story let me know that it wasn’t just a bunch of old War Bonds. On a lark, I checked the papers from around that time to see if there were any reports of the robbery. Only one came close, and the old couple in question were hospitalized and didn’t want to go back to the house they’d spent 40 years in for fear the bad men would come back. Thankfully, there were no pictures.

“What the hell do you know about that?”

“Relax, relax, you mentioned it one night and it got me thinking.”

“About what?”

“About easy money.”

“No such damn thing.”

“Look around,” I said, lowering my voice some more. “This place is a gold mine.”

“The bar? You wanna rob Sandy’s?”

“Not the bar,” I leaned back and took a drink to smooth over my frantic nerves.

“The town. We rob the whole god-forsaken town.”

Chapter Three

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About The Author

Thacher Cleveland

Thacher E. Cleveland is a contributing writer & columnist for PanelsOnPages.com, co-host of the Super-Fly Comics & Games PodCast, novelist & comic creator. Originally from New Jersey and previously from Yellow Springs, Ohio, he currently lives in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@demonweasel), tumblr, his personal website and even on Google+

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10 2011

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