Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and mature content.
This is Part Two of a three-part short story. It's been broken up for palatability but it's intended to read a single piece. Feel free to read all three parts and then leave a review for the entire story or review each part individually. As the label states, this is 18+ for the presence of explicit language and mature content (in this case, drugs and alcohol), so you may not want to read this if that's not your thing.
The next day was a Friday and Sam stayed at the shop until six thirty, at which point he climbed on his bike, leaving Jose to close up, and started in the direction of his apartment, passing the plaza and the halogenic FIREBIRD sign mounted on the small building beside it. Firebird was a bar — that was all Sam knew, as he’d never been in, but he always noticed the display outside, which glowed a deep yellow in the evening, the letters strung together in a sort of cursive. Today, as he passed, he felt a strange urge to stop at the bar; so, abruptly, he slowed, the bike’s engine popping emphatically, and turned into the parking lot, dismounting beside a silver SUV.
Inside, Firebird was undulating with chatter and low music, and sunlight filtered in through an oblong window that stretched fully across the near side of the interior, though the glass was tinted dark and the light that pierced it was a shade dimmer than outside, and beneath the window there was a line of booths sprinkled with people drinking and eating. On the opposite wall there were more booths and, halfway across, a painting of a stylistically distorted yellow bird and a couple of steps descending into another room with a handful of tables and arcade games. It was smaller inside than Sam had imagined. Dangling his helmet at his side, he walked down the line of booths and approached the bar, and suddenly he recognized Zach, who stood behind the bar, leaning forward with his elbows propped casually on the counter. A girl sat on a barstool facing him with the back of her thick blond head facing Sam, and he was talking to her. When Sam was close, Zach glanced up and appeared to recognize him as well.
“What’s up, man,” he exclaimed, letting his conversation with the girl trail off. “You work at the shop, right?”
“That’s right. My name’s Sam.”
“Well, shit. Amy, this is the fucker who says he’s gonna fix my bike,” Zach said. The girl turned to look at him. She had blue, sunken eyes and thick lips and a broad forehead that tapered down into a spoon of a chin.
“Not much hope for that piece of shit,” Sam said to Zach, though he grinned peaceably, and Zach clearly caught the facetious glint in his tone — it was still a Panigale, after all.
“That’s my baby you’re talking about, man,” Zach retorted with a smirk. “What do you think, Amy? You trust him?”
Amy snorted at Zach and pushed his arm affectionately. “You look like you know a lot about motorcycles, Sam,” she said to Sam, her voice affable.
“Well, I like to think so.”
“He better,” Zach said. “Take a seat up here, my man. You waiting for someone?”
“Nope.” Sam climbed onto a barstool next to Amy, sitting his helmet on his lap.
“What do you want?”
“A Modelo would be alright.”
“So, you’re a mechanic?” Amy said to Sam. With a straw she gently stirred the drink in front of her, something peach-colored.
“He’s the best mechanic in fucking Henderson,” Zach said as he split a lime slice on the lip of a Modelo and slid the bottle to Sam. “What did you say the problem was? Power commander?”
“That’s probably what it is,” Sam said. “Thanks, man.”
“Amy — this is my girlfriend, by the way — she was basically in tears when she heard the bike needed to go in. I swear. She’s always telling me how she loves to ride in the back and wrap her arms around my strong chest. Her words, man.”
“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Amy said, smirking into her drink. She took a long sip from the straw. “It is fun to ride, though.”
A couple women took up stools at the end of the bar and Zach drifted over to take their orders. Sam brought the Modelo to his lips, the beer filling his mouth, crawling down his throat, filtering into a basin deep inside him, an inexhaustible void. Feeling envigored, he looked at Amy’s glass and clinked his drink against hers. “Cheers,” he said; Amy chuckled in acquiescence, and they both drank. Sam felt a warmth build, a verve, as the effects of the alcohol and the joviality congealed in his mind.
“How much longer do you have?” Amy asked Zach, who was near them again, mixing a drink.
“Forty-five minutes,” Zach said. “Sam, you doing anything tonight?”
“I don’t have any plans.”
“Well, shit, stay and hang with us.” He shoveled ice into the drink and jabbed it with a straw before turning away. “I’m off at eight.”
“Alright, then,” Sam said. And so he stayed, the time passing quickly and freely, and by eight he’d finished two beers and was feeling light. He asked Zach where the restroom was and Zach directed him past the bar into the lower area, where there was a hallway leading to a men’s room. Sam found it. As he made his way back toward the bar, he glanced to his right and there was the yellow bird painting again, and Sam noticed that its face, which was half-turned outward, had a humanlike countenance, with small blue eyes and even a wisp of hair over its ear, and the face was soft and comforting. The beak was still there, long, sloping, cuspate, though below it there seemed to be a trickle of blood leading down toward the lips, which smiled distantly at something beyond the frame. Below it, there was what looked like a nest, and from the nest a tiny, human-faced chick gazed wistfully at its mother.
Breaking his gaze from the bird, Sam turned and saw Zach and Amy passing behind him; Zach saw him and said, “Stop staring at that creepy-ass bird, dude. We’re about to leave. I got your helmet.” He handed over the helmet. The night had picked up and Firebird was louder now, the music swinging and the booths almost overflowing; as they stepped outside, the commotion of the bar made way for the sound of traffic swelling around the plaza, and Sam followed Zach and Amy to the silver SUV beside his bike.
“You good leaving your bike here?” Zach asked.
“Sure, as long as you give me a ride back. Where’re y’all headed?”
“We’re just going to stop by our place down the street,” Amy said. “Then we’ll go out again.”
“Alright, then.” Sam followed them into the SUV and Zach drove them past the plaza, turning into a gated parking garage and ascending a level before veering into a parking space. Zach and Amy were chatting about some friend of theirs named Lucas, who, from what Sam could gather, had accepted a payment from Zach but hadn’t delivered whatever Zach had paid for, and Zach was going to talk to him tomorrow. Zach appeared to notice Sam’s dubious silence and explained, indignant,
“I paid this fucker Lucas, who works at the bar, for half an eight ball, and he closed up last night so he said he would leave the bag under the left cash register. I checked every cash register in the bar for this shit and it wasn’t there. Fucking punk.”
“I don’t like Lucas,” Amy said. “He looks like a turtle and he always fucks up my Manhattans. I guarantee it was just half an eight ball of baking soda anyway.”
Zach’s voice cracked as he laughed. From the parking garage, they funneled through a push-bar door into the carpeted hallway of the adjoining apartment building, and Zach unlocked the door at the far corner. Their apartment was roomy and elegant, with an open granite-topped kitchen to the left of the entrance and a spacious living room with a pool table and a folding glass wall at the back, beyond which there was the looming crag of Frenchman Mountain, and the last breaths of evening sunlight trickling in from the west.
“Sam,” Zach said from the fridge. “You want to split a Four Loko?”
“Four Loko? I’m dating a fucking meathead,” Amy said as she extricated her feet from her heels.
“College habits die hard,” Zach admitted. He poured himself a glass from the can and handed the rest of the can to Sam, who took a gulp. It foamed in his mouth and tasted citrusy. Zach pulled out his phone and a Bluetooth speaker started playing hip hop, and then Amy disappeared somewhere. Zach leaned back against the countertop and said, “You know, I always think of bike mechanics as old redneck white guys. I bet you get a lot of babes as a mechanic, since you’re so young. It’s a sexy job.”
“I mean — here and there, yeah,” Sam said. “I dated a girl in mechanic school who was cute.”
“I believe it.”
“That was in Reno.”
“For sure,” Zach said, nodding as he turned to look into the space ahead of him. They drank in silence for a bit and the hip hop blared. Amy rejoined them, barefoot, and asked Zach if he wanted to go to the strip with a friend of hers.
“I’m down for whatever,” he replied. “Sam, you want to play a quick game?”
“Oh — yeah, alright.” Sam followed Zach over to the table, which Zach racked before picking out two sticks from under the table, chalking their tips, and handing one to Sam. Amy seated herself on the leather sofa beside the pool table, chatting on her phone with someone. Zach broke, scattering the balls across the felt. Sam surveyed the table and lined up a difficult shot to a corner pocket. “Twelve to the corner,” he said, pulling the stick far behind him and striking the purple twelve. It rebounded off the pocket’s opening.
“Get the fuck out of there,” Zach gloated, finishing his glass. He pocketed the four ball with a firm, graceful shot that inadvertently knocked the two ball directly in front of the near side pocket, which Zach pocketed as well before missing his third shot. As Sam was lining up his shot, Zach went to the kitchen to retrieve something from a cupboard. “Sam,” he said. “You cool doing some blow, man? We got a gram left from last week.”
“Alright.” Sam struck and missed again. “Fuck.”
Amy, off the phone now, glanced up. “Just two lines,” she said.
“Two lines each, motherfuckers,” Zach pronounced. “I’m pretty sure this is cut to shit anyway.” He laid a ziploc bag with a clump of white powder on the countertop and crushed the clump with a card from his wallet, then delicately emptied the contents of the bag and, using the card, split the resulting pile into six meticulous lines. He plucked a bill from his wallet, rolled it up into a tight cylinder, and snorted the first two lines in quick succession. He stood there for a moment, intently, holding his eyes shut as if he was willing his system to absorb it. “I can already tell that’s cut to shit,” he said finally. He took his stick and reapproached the pool table. “It’s all you.”
Sam leaned his stick against the table and went over to the countertop. He’d never done cocaine before. He picked up the bill that Zach had left and tightened it into a tube, then lowered it down to where the line began, pressing the bill into his left nostril and holding down his right nostril with his finger. As Zach had done, he inhaled sharply and brought the bill down the line until it was gone, feeling the powder rake against his sinus, then repeated with the next line. His left nostril was sore, and he massaged his nose, resisting the urge to sneeze.
“One to the side pocket,” Zach declared, and Sam heard the crack of the cue and a ball bouncing forcibly off the rail. “Shit,” he said. “Amy, get off your phone and go do your cocaine.”
“Okay, daddy.” She rose from the sofa. As she passed Sam in the kitchen, she asked, “How is it?”
“I don’t feel anything yet.”
“Yeah, obviously.” She took the bill from the counter and Sam made his way back to the pool table. He watched her do her first line, pause for a few seconds, brush her hair back, then do the second, final line; where Zach had snorted loudly, Amy made no sound at all, as if the powder floated up into her without resistance, without gravity. “Am I a cokehead, babe?” she asked Zach when she was finished. “I did coke twice last weekend as well.”
“You absolutely are,” Zach said. Sam played pool with Zach for a bit longer, managing to even the score between them, as Amy watched from the sofa. After a few minutes he began to feel it: an awakening, a sharp euphoria, a rushing glut of sensation and awareness. Around him there was Zach, Amy, the table, and himself, and there seemed to be something organic and familial but inscrutable between them all. He buried two shots in a row, leaving just the eight ball, which he shot at the near corner and missed by a inch.
“I think this fucker’s feeling it more than I am,” Zach said. “He’s got an unfair advantage now. I wish we had that blow from Lucas. That was good Colombian shit, apparently.”
“Fuck Lucas,” Amy declared. “I can’t stand him. I don’t know how he’s even a bartender.”
“Fuck Lucas,” Sam said, more loudly than he intended, to which Amy snorted.
“See? Sam hasn’t even met Lucas and he already knows.”
“He’s not that bad,” Zach said. “Six to the corner.” He rechalked his stick and took his time lining up his next shot, eyeing up the cue ball with a look of concentration, stroking the stick back and forth across his bridge hand three or four times before unleashing and sending the six ball into the corner pocket from across the table. “I’m just pissed at him about the blow.” He lined up his next shot and pocketed that as well, then missed the eight.
“I want to play a game,” Amy said. “I’ll play winner.”
“We still going to the strip?”
“Yeah, of course. Stephanie said she’d give me a call when she’s ready. She’s probably trying to figure out which one of her dresses is the sluttiest.”
“Side pocket,” Sam called, having determined his shot. He landed and lined up the shot, Amy’s face watching enigmatically from across the table. Through the perverse, lucid unrestraint of the cocaine he felt the dulcet pangs of attraction for the straight-backed girl on the sofa, a longing for coalescence; the feeling ached in him for a moment, full and nameless and childlike. He knew instantly he would not be able to exorcise it, so he instead redirected his attention to the table and noticed that, from his angle, it was as if the stick was a long, wooden beak on Amy’s face, akin to the beaks in the painting in Firebird; indeed, there was a surreality, indeed a bizarreness to its closeness. He knocked in the eight with a single stroke.
“Aw, shit,” said Zach, tapping his stick on the floor in frustration. “Good game, buddy. Enjoy it while it lasts, man — Amy’s gonna destroy you.”
Sam helped Zach rerack the table and Amy broke. She did beat him, though Sam managed to hold his ground until he scratched toward the end. She had a deft, practiced shot, a shot that had been honed in her formative years, she said, by countless games with her brothers. Sam, by contrast, hadn’t played much pool as a child, though he'd played with Clyde a handful of times since moving to Henderson. By the time their game ended, the sky had fully blackened outside the folding glass wall and the miasmic afterglow of traffic lights, the shiftless mirage of the city below, seemed to float up into it, an auroral translation of the unsleeping, unbound convulsions of street-plying taxis and other inhabitants of the night.
“I didn’t have any brothers to play with,” Zach said thoughtfully from the sofa. “But my older sister, Martha — she got me into all kinds of shit when I was a kid.”
“Like what?” Sam asked. Zach sipped a glass of whiskey that he’d procured from the kitchen and gazed at the pool table.
“I grew up in Oregon, this little shit town called Medford,” he said. “My family lived on the edge of a forest — ‘cause Oregon is all fucking forest, really, at least the western part — me, my dad, my mom, and my sister. When I was, like, seven, Martha and I were outside and we heard this sound coming from the trees, a faint sort of yipping sound. So we went to check it out. It was coming from this little baby coyote, which we found hiding inside a log and crying like a motherfucker. We waited for a few minutes to see if its mother would come around, but she didn’t. Martha made me run back to the house to grab some crackers for it. It wouldn’t eat out of our hands, so we lined up the crackers in a line in front of it, and then it finally started sniffing them and eating them, one by one. We eventually left when it started getting dark, but we went back after school the next day, around the same time in the afternoon, and the little fucker was still there, like it hadn’t moved an inch. So we fed it crackers again, lining them up so he’d eat them. We did that shit every day after school for a few weeks, maybe a month, and it never seemed to move — or if it did, we never saw it. We didn’t tell our parents about it, of course. We named it Roxy Ann, after the mountain southeast of where we grew up, and Martha and I felt responsible for it, like we were its parents now.
“Eventually the school year ended and my whole family went on vacation for a week in Mexico. When we came back, we went to the log, but Roxy Ann wasn't there. Then we started hearing the story from the neighbors — that there’d been howling from the woods every day at the same time in the afternoon, long, lonely coyote howls, right up to the day before we came back. Martha and I knew it was Roxy Ann. We checked a few more times, but we never saw that little fucker again after that.” Zach finished his whiskey. The hip hop playlist had begun to loop, so he pulled out his phone and put on a softer R&B refrain.
“Sounds like it got attached to you,” Amy said.
“Yeah. It did.”
“Sometimes it can be hard to tell attachment and connection apart,” Amy said, and Sam thought for a moment that she was looking at him as she did so, but when he looked up he saw that she was eyeing Zach. “That pup was using you to fill a void that its parents left. Maybe you and Martha were using it to pretend you were parents. It was fucking two-way attachment.”
“Maybe that’s all connection is,” Zach surmised. The room fell quiet again, and when there was finally a text from the Stephanie girl it was Amy who suggested the course whose imminence they all must have already intuited, and indeed desired: that they stay in. So they did. They drank — Sam finished the Four Loko and a glass or two of whiskey — and played pool into the night, well past midnight, as the untiring bustle of Vegas-adjacency wafted mutedly in through the window and the R&B swayed from Zach’s speaker, one long homogeneous ramble, no song distinguishable from its predecessor or its successor. As the effects of the cocaine wore off, Sam felt an exhaustion take hold of him; Zach and Amy must have felt it, too, because they began to yawn between shots.
“I’m dog tired,” Zach said at last, after burying an eight against Sam. Amy already looked half asleep on the sofa. “Looks like she is, too.”
“I’m tired,” Amy mumbled.
“I can see that, you little cokehead. Sam, you can sleep on the couch if you want, man. I’ll take her to bed.” He turned off the music and dimmed the overhead light.
“Alright. Thanks,” Sam said, looking at Zach, at the firm lower lip and the steady jaw. Zach looked back at him and their eyes met, a meeting that was ineluctable, mammalian, and Sam noticed a hard tenderness in the eyes that looked from Zach which felt to Sam fleetingly, drunkenly, instinctively like the look of not a pool partner but a father, a look to which the only possible reciprocation was reverence; and then Zach nodded, as if he understood this as well, and he averted his eyes, then, seemingly abrogating it, or at least acknowledging it. He lifted Amy between his arms and carried her into the bedroom behind the sofa, softly shutting the door. Sam turned off the light, curled up on the sofa, and passed out.
He woke to the sound of the door reopening and voices behind him. Morning light was percolating in through the folding glass wall and the apartment itself still seemed to be half-asleep around him. He sat up on the sofa and a dagger of pain carved into his temple; he closed his eyes and pressed down on the pain, feverishly, until it dissolved into a sore throb. He remembered the cocaine, though the rest of the night was hazy in his head.
“How did he know it was your coke?” Amy’s voice was saying directly behind him, and it took Sam a moment to recognize and process her distress. He saw her following Zach into the kitchen, where Zach poured a glass of water and appeared to down a pill. They were both in their underwear.
“Lucas must have told him. That cocksucker, man. Maybe he found the bag and confronted Lucas about it. I knew that cash register shit was a stupid idea.”
“What does the text say?”
“Just that he found it and he knows it was mine. That’s why it wasn’t there yesterday. I’m fucking done there, I know it.”
They fell silent, and seemed to notice Sam for the first time.
“Maybe you should go, Sam,” Amy said, and her voice wasn’t cold, but it was final, irrefutable.
“Alright, then,” Sam said. He stood, reeling momentarily as his temple smarted. This was all happening quickly, and he felt that there was something he needed to say, some immense anguish that had gone unvoiced.
“You know the way out?” Zach asked.
“I’ll figure it out.” Sam tried to remember if he’d left anything at the apartment, and couldn’t think of anything, so he made his way to the door in silence. The tendrils of a vague dread were tightening in his chest, though he didn’t know why. He opened the door, took a final glance at Zach and Amy in the kitchen, and stepped out, closing it behind him.
He was alone in the hallway. He recalled that they were on the second floor, so he searched around for an elevator, found one, and descended into the glass-encased lobby of the apartment building, out of which he stumbled into the tepid morning. He followed the street down to the corner where he could see the plaza and made his way toward it. The halogen letters denoting the Firebird building were gray now, lifeless. His motorcycle was still there, the only vehicle in the lot, and Sam realized that he’d forgotten his helmet in the apartment, or maybe in the SUV. But he didn’t want to go back to retrieve it. Dazedly, he pulled the choke and started the engine, mounted, and rode home through the light morning traffic.