Sympathy

Emma Bolden

Listen: we were always drunk or high on something. Benzedrine, Methadrine, Thorazine, pot, shoe polish — whatever we could find. We drank the cheapest vodka around and ate what we could steal out of vending machines. We were always piling in the car and driving, to another bar, to another house, to anywhere. We were wild and we wanted to prove it.

I wasn’t there because I was Jim’s girlfriend. I wasn’t one of those girls who sat in the backseat and sucked down beer but watched their lipstick and called the guys monsters then passed out naked underneath them. I was there because I was up for anything — any bar, any bottle drained down to the bottom — and I was still there in the black-eyed, blood-puking morning.

This isn’t a pretty story. It’s just the way it was.

I’d like to say I saw it coming, like a cop car in the rearview. I’d like to say I was prepared. That I knew it was time to leave and was ready, bags packed, Post Office notified. But there wasn’t a preview, just something that happened. And when Jim stabbed that guy, it wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t much different from every other night. There were always punches, always bottles breaking over some boy’s fair head. It wasn’t much different, and that was the difference. That’s why it was the end.

When Jim stabbed that guy, he thought it was honor. None of us would call it a crime. It was a promise, an agreement between them: one man asked, one man answered, and that’s the way of the world. Of course we were drunk. Of course we were stoned. But it went beyond beer and cheap weed, beyond rules and words to what I still can’t explain. It was a pact, an oath between brothers: stab me in the chest and I’ll let you. Easy.

The bar was like every other bar, dim lights and a floor that was solid quicksand, sucking the shoes off your feet. The guy Jim stabbed said his name was Bobby and he’d been in the bar since noon. The bartender nodded and went slow with his beers, so we figured it was the truth. The boys and I gulped down beers to wash out the taste of ‘drines, like candy that’s been in the drugstore too long. Bobby could keep up after twelve hours of drinking, so we called him an alright guy and clinked glasses. He said he had a job hauling tractor trailers packed with Pepsi, round trips across Texas and back to the bar. “Not a bad living,” he called it, “nice landscape and all the Pepsi you want.” I thought driving and soda must be bad for the skin — his was the color of old tumbleweed. He downed half a beer and signaled the bartender, who got down to polishing a keg.

Jim loved to brag about bar fights. I hated those fights as much as I loved them: keeping cover in a corner from flying chairs and cops, holding cold beer cans against his cuts when they called it quits, kissing him later on someone’s couch, alone. Sometimes he’d need a Band-Aid, but it never got any worse than that. Jim always brought up bar fights, and he brought them up that night. The bar was almost empty, just me, the boys, Bobby, and three guys who kept changing dollars for quarters to blow playing “Free Bird” on the jukebox. The “Free Bird” boys huddled at the other end of the bar —— Jim scared them off for checking out my ass twice. “Once is just admiring the merchandise,” he always said, “but more than once is a threat.”

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