BAR FIGHT & REVELATION - short story
This short (2000 word) story is based on a chapter from my second novel, "We Danced to Ray Charles." Any thoughts on how it might be improved would be appreciated.
Bar Fight & Revelation
By Bill Fullerton
A weary Seeburg Select-O-Matic jukebox crouched beside the front door of The Rebel Yell. The tenth playing that evening of “Please Come Home For Christmas” was just ending. Across the room, Sam, the joint’s cheerless owner, held court behind a short bar with several worn stools. Strings of Christmas lights acknowledged the season and provided most of the illumination. An old, printed sign taped to the cash register proclaimed, “You’re white today because your ancestors practiced segregation.”
This same lighting scheme extended into a large dance area lined with plastic covered booths and small, scarred tables. The place had a pervasive odor of beer, cigarette smoke, hair tonic, cheap aftershave, and testosterone.
Clay Hopkins stood next to the jukebox until he spotted Wheeler Sims sitting at a front booth. The Rhodes brothers were with him. So was Renee. With those eyes you could get lost in and an ass to die for, she was the best looking girl he’d ever dated, much less made love to.
Abby once called her a manipulative bitch and, just for good measure, white trash. As usual, she’d been right. Renee was also a racist, so were a lot of other people Clay knew. He wasn’t, but had lusted for her since junior high. Years of futility ended last summer when they began dating, and then making love. But all that ended last week, a lifetime ago.
The jukebox screeched in protest as he pushed it away from the wall. The needle settled back into a grove with Tammy Wynette spelling out, D-I-V-O-R-C-E. She reached R before he found the power cord and yanked hard. Lights went out and it ground into silence.
A chorus of loud complaints erupted. People turned to see what happened. Then, like a scene from an old western, everything got quiet.
Behind the bar, Sam reached for his blackjack. “Easy Sam.” Clay held up a hand. “Stay where you are and I’ll be out of here in a second.
“Wheeler, you need to come outside. I’ll be waiting by your truck. There some things we need to settle. You know what. If you’re not there in a few minutes, I’ll leave a reminder on that bird-shit yellow paint-job about when I’ll be back. So you might as well come on.”
Clay plugged the jukebox back in and left. Wheeler, along with Renee and the Rhodes brothers plus most of the bar’s other patrons, soon followed. They milled around in the frosty southern air while he made a show of checking out the situation.
In a loud, cocky voice, he asked, “Okay, I’m here. What’s all this shit about?”
“You started the church fire that killed Abby and Ike.” It was a statement, not a question.
A tiny smirk flashed across Wheeler’s face. Then he put on a show of indignation. “Bull shit.”
The men stared at one another, until Wheeler looked over at the two men standing beside Clay’s old Ford. “What you doing here, Hoss? Trying to keep Hopkin’s junker running?”
The hulking mechanic pointed at the three Rhodes brothers standing near Wheeler. “Thought I’d come along to make sure this is a fair fight, a one-on-one deal, and your little buddies stay out of things.”
The undersized brothers, who preferred doing their brand of fighting in dark, crowded bars, showed no interest in an outdoor encounter with Hoss Driscoll. They smirked, but made no reply.
“What about you, Hemphill?” said Wheeler. “You want a part of this?”
“Not me,” said Bob. He used his thumb to gesture at Clay. “I’m just here to make sure he doesn’t kill you. You’re not worth an involuntary manslaughter charge.”
The casual tone seemed to unsettle Wheeler. But he recovered and turned to the large crowd clustered behind him. “Well, I guess Hopkins ain’t gonna be happy until I kick his sorry candy-ass across this parking lot. So let’s get it over with.” He punctuated his final words by making a big production out of turning back around to face Clay. What he saw seemed to surprise him.
Across the small, neon-lighted space, Clay stood shirtless. A second summer spent wrestling with heavy, green, plank-road lumber had put some impressive muscles on his arms and upper body. The chubby junior high football player the two-year older Wheeler had once beaten and humiliated now looked more than a match for his former tormentor.
The spotless cowboy hat came off in a big, sweeping motion. Then he smiled at Renee. “Would you mind holding this for a minute? I’m not gonna take my shirt off. Candy-ass might get all hot and bothered at the sight.” The crowd guffawed. Renee returned his smile and accepted the hat.
With the formalities over, Wheeler turned back, then moved forward, all the while talking loud and grinning. Without warning, he brought a vicious left up from the hip.
Clay was expecting some sort of sucker punch and dodged, but he'd forgotten Wheeler was a lefty. The side of his head exploded with pain as the punch bounced off his ear. He countered with a short left to the eye and a hard, straight right to the jaw.
Wheeler shook his head, then pressed in with a flurry of quick headshots. Some landed, most missed. Then a sharp jab shook Clay and left his mouth bleeding. It seemed to wake him up. Before, he’d been fighting more in grief than anger. Now a lifetime worth of rage took over.
Wheeler took two hard shots to the body, and stepped away. He paused to rub at his swelling eye, then grinned and came on like a right-hander, throwing a left-right combination. While Clay was no fighter, thanks to his Golden Gloves father, he knew how to box. He parried most of the blows, then countered with a jab that bloodied Wheeler’s nose and followed that with a hard right to the gut. There was a satisfying grunt of pain as air exploded from a gaping mouth.
Wheeler’s breath now came in short, ragged gasps. He moved in again but with caution, like a wounded animal. All his bluster was gone. Clay half-expected him to make a rush and try to wrestle him down. But after feinting with a right, Wheeler unleashed a savage left. It was a haymaker, a desperate attempt at a knockout.
The feint was good, but he telegraphed the big punch. Once again Clay bobbed but felt the sting of knuckles banging off his already throbbing ear.
The punch left Wheeler off balance and vulnerable. A right slammed into his mouth. Blood and spittle flew from busted lips. Eyes snapped open wide in pain. A left rocked his head. He tried to recover, to defend himself. But a right hammered him just below the heart. He grunted, doubled over, and stumbled backward before sinking to his knees.
With hands propped on thighs, Wheeler Sims knelt, gasping for breath and stared at the ground. A string of bloody drool trailed from his swollen lips to the oil-stained gravel between his knees.
Clay rubbed his throbbing ear, touched his busted lip, and then studied his cut, aching knuckles. Finished with his self-exam, he walked over and stood in front of the man who had killed Abby and Ike. “You did it, didn’t you?”
Wheeler looked up and tried to glare at his opponent. He spit a glob of blood onto the ground between Clay’s boots. “What the fuck you talking about, candy-ass?”
“You must be proud of being stupid.” Clay’s voice was unemotional, almost resigned. “But, maybe you’re counting on me being a nice guy. You know, the kind who always plays by the rules and would never hit a defenseless man. But just between you and me, I wouldn’t count on that any more.”
Clay’s fist smashed into the unprotected face looking up at him. There was a crunch of breaking cartilage. Blood spewed from a shattered nose. Wheeler’s head jerked back. His body twisted and he crashed to the ground.
A Rhodes brother made a move to come and help, but Hoss motioned him back. Wheeler struggled to roll over, then got to his hands and knees.
Clay stepped closer and spoke in a low, patient voice. “Now let’s try that again. But this time, it’ll just be between you and me. You did it, didn’t you? You torched that church.”
There was a pause, then a nod. Wheeler’s lips were split and swollen, his voice a bit garbled. “But I swear no one was inside. And I’m, I’m sorry about your girl. But why in hell did she and that nigger go running in there?”
Clay’s reaction was immediate, instinctive, and brutal. He stepped forward and kicked his beaten opponent in the ribs. The work boot’s steel toe landed with a sickening thud and the sound of something cracking. Wheeler tumbled onto his side, screaming in pain, and tried to curl into a protective ball. This time, Hoss had to take two steps forward to intimidate the Rhodes brothers.
Clay knelt on one knee and studied his long-time rival. “Can you hear me?”
There was a soft moan, then, “Yeah.”
“Let me tell you something, Sims. Abby Marshall wasn’t just my girl, she was my best friend, my fiancée. I’d loved her all my life but was too dumb to see that, then too afraid of losing her to admit it, besides, there was Bebe. When I finally manage to figure things out, you killed her.
“We were heading home to tell everyone Abby and I were engaged. Ike was with us. Realizing we were in love, that was his doing. Then we saw the fire, and thought Ike’s folks were inside. Rev. Carter’s got a bum leg. They were out of the car and racing toward the church door the moment I reached the parking lot. It fell in before I could get there.”
Clay looked over to where Renee stood, hands in her hip pockets, watching. Someone else had the cowboy hat. Maybe it clashed with her designer jeans and that fitted western shirt with all its unused snaps. There was a look of surprise on her perfect oval face, but also a familiar, subtle invitation in her bedroom eyes.
That’s when he understood why Wheeler had burned the church. But Clay then knew, that beyond any hope of forgiveness, he was also responsible for the deaths of Abby and Ike. He shook his head in disgust and looked back at Sims. “And you, you poor, stupid, son-of-a-bitch, you killed her trying to impress Renee, because she’d dropped you and started dating me?”
“Well, what do you know?” Clay looked almost amused. “After all these years, you and I have something in common. We’ve both made fools of ourselves, not to mention killers, because of her.”
Clay shifted and spit some blood on the ground. “Now about that guy you killed. His name was Ike Carter, and he was another one of my best friends. In fact, he and Abby, the three of us, we’d been friends all our lives. But then you killed ‘em trying to impress Renee. And I want you to get this straight, Sims, I want you to understand, Ike Carter was black, but he wasn’t a nigger. Is that clear?”
Wheeler nodded, then flinched as Clay reached towards him, only to flick a brown oak leaf off his shoulder.
With the leaf disposed of, Clay continued. “Now, listen close. Maybe I shouldn’t have busted up your ribs. But you'll heal, my friends won't. So I figure you still owe me for two lives. That doesn’t count what you owe the Carter’s and Marshall’s and a lot of other decent folks, not to mention your Maker. That’s all between you and them.”
For a moment, Clay studied the man at his feet. “I’m going away for a while, but I will be back. And if I hear that you or any of your crowd has hurt any of my friends or called anybody I know a nigger, I’ll hunt you down and, unless you kill me first, I’ll leave you a cripple. Do you believe me?”
“I believe you.”
“That’s good. Just remember, you didn’t kill all my friends. I’ve still got a few left. And I know a whole bunch of people around here. So you be good now, ‘cause just like Santa Claus, I’ll know if you’ve been nice. And if Renee has decided she'll be your Christmas present, you don’t need any more enemies.”