John M. Gist‘s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Gravel, Pithead Chapel, Prick of the Spindle, Left Curve, Academic Questions, New Mexico Magazine and others. He was recently awarded runner-up in South Loop Review’s 2014 National Essay Contest judged by David Shields and had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He recently was named finalist in the 2015 Tucson Book Festival Literary Awards. With an M.F.A from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he teaches creative writing at sunny Western New Mexico University.
The Zuni Bar and Grill
By John M. Gist
I skulked the streets of the night city after losing my job at the university. Inhabiting shadows, the dark corners of nightclubs and breweries, the alleyways reeking of piss and rotten garbage, overgrown parks where the streetlights had been shot out never to be replaced, I reminded myself that I was merely an observer come to measure the pulse of human desire. It is a strange sensation, however, when the observer becomes the observed. I have experienced it only once: the night I met Trinity Flounce.
I sat in a corner of the Zuni Bar and Grill nursing a bottle of Dos Equis gone flat. A bowl of tortilla chips—the triangles of cornmeal crisped at the Mexican food factory on the south side of the railroad tracks—sat next to a molcajete half-full of salsa on the wooden tabletop. I surveyed the crowd, the bottom of the barrel people, the forgotten, the hidden, the devils who pedal appetites. They were all there. The women who frequented the establishment were prostitutes, dressed in mini-skirts or short shorts, cleavage erupting from low-cut blouses in the flare of candles—on the tables, the bar, burning in wrought-iron candelabras hanging from rafters of hewn pine. The men were carnivores on the hunt. Eyes glassy with Hunger, the latest drug of choice on the streets, they sniffed out their victims with the instinct of bloodhounds.
The university, as they handed out walking papers to all but three of the humanities faculty six months earlier, offered those “let go” contract work to “ease the transition into economic reality.” How thoughtful. They hired us as researchers to mine data on subjects sanctioned by the city. The data was to be written into prescribed templates mimicking screenplays. Hard facts were to be softened by using “neutral” language, the preferred vocabulary including phrases such as “interpersonal relations,” “interdependent subjectivity,” and “mutuality of goals.” Religious terms were to be avoided at all costs and the word “truth,” as I interpreted the guidelines, came with negative connotations. Each presentation was to last forty-five minutes. The scripts were performed in dramatic fashion by two or three studio actors, the digitally captured enactment then loaded into the course schedule. The writer’s pay: fifteen-hundred solids. Decent money for two weeks’ worth of work. I had agreed to write a series of scripts centered on the Arthurian version of the Holy Grail. I was instructed to dismiss Christian influences and focus my research on the Mabinogion and The Four Ancient Books of Wales. I took the job.
A man stumbling into the Zuni interrupted my thoughts. Normally I didn’t focus on individuals streaming in and out of the bar in order to tune in to the rhythm of sin as it spread through the place like a mephitic mold. But this man was different. Dressed like a hobo from yesteryear, he stood maybe five and a half feet tall. The dome of his bald head pulsated in the burn of candles. The size of his skull seemed too big for the corded neck muscles keeping it afloat over an underdeveloped body. The straps of his bib overalls hung slack over his thin shoulders. He wore no shirt and his skin was white as a mothball. His face was smooth and unblemished, but his features—maybe it was the eyes, large and round and brown, sad eyes—caused him to look middle-aged. His tattered green tennis shoes were small, those of a child. He wobbled toward the bar like a metronome, his great head wagging from side to side to the rhythm of his gait.
No one else seemed to notice, though the crowd opened before him as if he were an invisible force sent to part the waters of iniquity. He lurched to the bar, climbed on a barstool and, standing precariously on the torn vinyl of an orange swivel seat, peered into a false distance like a sailor in the crow’s nest of a vessel at sea. He placed a hand over his brow to shield his eyes from some imperceptible glare. Looking about, I could feel the panic swell inside of him. Unable to find who or what he was looking for, he stepped off the oval barstool and up onto the bar, as if greater altitude might force the unseen to become seen. His bulbous head turned slowly as his eyes swept the room, light from the candelabra pooling on the smooth dome of his skull. Back and forth the head turned, the hand over the brow, slow and measured.
The bartender, an elderly biker in a leather vest, a silver watch band stubbed with turquoise on his wrist, his gray hair tied back in a stringy ponytail, went about his business behind the bar. He didn’t seem to notice the hobo-man standing above him. Neither did the man and the woman sitting on barstools just below and to one side of the bartender. The woman drew smoke from a vintage black cigarette holder, the exhaled toxins streaming from her nose like serpents born of mist. Bored. The man sitting next to the woman cradled a lowball glass of bourbon between his two palms, mesmerized by a large pearl hanging from a silver chain nestled in the woman’s ample bosom. Oblivious.
And then the seeker’s gaze fell upon me. A warm sensation bubbled at the base of my spine and, in the space of seconds, I felt as if I might ejaculate. I watched as the man jumped off the bar top and disappeared behind the bar. He emerged at the end of the bar nearest me carrying a pint bottle of unopened tequila. He teetered toward my table on feet too small. The fact that one of his legs was slightly shorter than the other struck me as significant.
“You’ve seen her.”
The statement of fact, combined with the child-like tenor of his voice, struck me dumb.
He placed the bottle on the table, pulled out a chair, and slumped into it. Tugging at a denim strap of his overalls, he peered at me through reptilian eyes.
I thought I might cry.
Slapping palms to the top of his skull, he curled into himself and began to sob quietly.
I dared not touch him. Taking the bottle of tequila from the table, I twisted off the cap, “This might help.”
He raised his head. When he smiled, his teeth were tiny as a toddler’s and white as stars. Taking up the bottle, he took a swallow of the amber liquid. He sat the bottle on the table and nodded, “Now you.”
For me, tequila meant trouble. Brawls and knives. I hadn’t had a taste in years.
“Don’t be rude,” said the hobo-man.
I took the bottle and drank. The liquor tasted like medicine.
My belly warmed. Flickers of light from dozens of candlewicks coalesced into a single light.
The hobo-man leaned toward me and whispered, “Where is she?”
I had nothing to say.
His pupils expanded until the corneas pulsed black. “You know. Pearl. The beloved. Remember? Where is she?”
A waitress wearing tight jeans and a black tube top that could pass for a strapless bra approached our table carrying two red candles. Golden glitter effervesced from her cleavage. Her hair, stiff with hairspray, was bleached and teased.
I said, “I don’t know.”
A roll of fat, small and loose, tumbled over the top of the waitress’s belt buckle; I couldn’t take my eyes off the turquoise thunderbird centered in the ovoid of the polished silver buckle at her waist. She wore red boots with pointed toes and black stiletto heels. She moved like a secret waiting to be told. Her skin was the color of rust.
“My granddaddy’s,” said the waitress, placing the candles on the table. “Navajo. Want to touch?” Her eyes were seafoam green.
The hobo-man grabbed my forearm. “Don’t.”
“Suit yourself,” said the waitress. “I ain’t going to offer twice.” Turning an about face, a stiletto heel snapped from her boot. She dropped to the floor.
The hobo-man’s chuckle was more of a hiss.
I attempted to get to my feet to help her, but the hobo-man held my arm.
He said, “Unclean.”
The waitress pouted, her painted-red lips a smear. Removing her boots, she got to her feet and, boots in hand, stomped off.
The hobo-man took the bottle and drank. He wiped his mouth on his shoulder. “You don’t remember me. Must be something about my face.” Placing the bottle on the table, he stood from his chair and bowed. Standing upright, he held out a hand in offering, “My name is Trinity Flounce.” His fingers were too big for his palms.
As I reached out to take his hand, he withdrew it and collapsed into his chair.
“And you are Dr. Joseph Echeverría. Your mother and father were Basque but they died in the outbreak, along with your sister. Your grandparents too. You have no aunts or uncles and thus no cousins. You were a professor of humanities. Your wife left you for an actor who performs academic scripts such as the ones you now write. You’re alone. Tragic. And now I need you to remember. Where is Pearl?”
It was my turn for a drink, but, when I took up the bottle, it was empty. Music floated in from the far side of the bar. I couldn’t make out if it was live or from a jukebox.
The waitress returned, this time with a plate of chicken taquitos, a side of guacamole, and a fresh bottle of Dos Equis. When she leaned down to serve the food and drink, I caught a scent of sea, a salted humidity, on her breath.
“You sure you don’t want to touch it?” she whispered. “I get off in a couple of hours. We can go someplace.”
I felt the hobo-man’s grip on my wrist. I tried to pull away but could not. I sat nodding at the woman like an idiot.
The waitress stood erect. “Wait a minute. Nobody’s told you, have they?”
Flounce loosened his grip.
“Told me what?” I asked.
“Jesus ain’t comin’ back,” said the waitress. “Do you know what that means?”
I noticed her feet were bare and wondered if there were splinters in the worn wooden floor.
“There ain’t nothing’ left to do but get what little pleasure there is left in the world.” She smiled and the silver belt buckle at her waist flashed like a lighthouse beacon on the shores of a desolate sea. “That’s what it means.” Her smile flipped into a pout. “Nobody told you?” She leaned down once more and whispered, “We’re a lost cause, honey, so lost that Jesus got lost trying to save us.” She kissed me on the forehead and whispered, “We’re all runaways longing for home.” Standing straight, she smiled. “But we forgot the way, honey. Jesus too. The only one left to love us is us.”
“Be gone!” snapped the hobo-man from across the table.
The waitress winked at me as if she didn’t notice Flounce. “It’s the Christian thing to do.” She looked at the big clock on the wall behind the bar. “I’m off at two. Wait for me. I’ll treat you right. I’m not like other women.” She then shot a half-glance at the hobo-man. “Don’t listen to nobody who tells you different.” She turned and walked towards the bar.
“Plain mean-spirited to refer to your ex-wife like that,” said Flounce.
“Do you love her?”
“What? I don’t even know her.” I took a drink of beer.
“No, you idiot. Pearl. Did you promise yourself to her?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I had sworn off women after finding my ex-wife lying in my bed with one of the actors who made a living performing educational scripts. “Who are you? And why in the hell are you acting like we’re old friends?”
He held a long, thick index finger to his lips. “Shhhh. You don’t understand.”
The tequila burned in my guts. “You make me understand in the next ten seconds or get lost.”
The flesh on his face looked as if it might drip onto the table. I thought he might weep.
“I think you’ve got confused me with someone else,” I said, feeling a sudden twang of pity. The misshapen bastard couldn’t help what he was.
Flounce’s face perked as if he had just caught onto a joke. A string of spittle hung from his eye tooth. “Maybe you know her by another name. Mary or Theresa?”
I needed to get rid of Flounce before the waitress returned. “Well, we live in what used to be called New Mexico. So the names Mary and Theresa don’t narrow it down much.” I took a drink of beer.
“She was a student of yours,” said Flounce. “Wrote a paper on Duns Scotus. She was interested in the Immaculate Conception. Do you remember?”
I snatched a taquito from the plate, slathered it with guacamole, and took a bite.
“You remember her?” repeated Flounce.
The taquito was frozen in the middle.
“That was Pearl.”
I gagged and took a drink of beer. “I did have a student who was interested in Scotus. Her name was Sophia.”
“She thought of you as a son.”
“What? This girl was maybe twenty years old.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
I took a mouthful of beer, swirled it around my mouth, and swallowed.
“Do you know where she lives?” repeated Flounce.
“It was two or three years ago.”
“Everything depends on it.”
“Look,” I said, “all I can tell you is her name was Sophia. She kept to herself. Quiet. Withdrawn. A mystery. That’s all I know. So, if you’ll excuse me.”
I tried to stand, but, when Flounce grabbed my forearm, I could no longer feel my feet. The room swirled. Candles flashed kaleidoscopic.
“You must have something,” pleaded Flounce. “In your records.” His voice blended with the throb of electric bass coming from the far side of the bar. He leaned over the table, “There’s a reward.”
His breath smelled of dung.
The waitress appeared at the table with a fresh bottle of beer and a plate of nachos.
“Be gone,” murmured Flounce.
“This one’s on me,” said the woman. “And I’ll keep them coming. You don’t have to do a thing.”
The glitter on her chest sparkled like lights on a disco ball. “Just sit and wait.”
Before I could answer, she was gone.
“Fifteen hundred solids,” said Flounce.
I watched the people mulling about the bar to the rhythm of the music, smoking cigarettes and sucking on liquor-slick ice cubes. I felt like a man deep in the woods the moment he realizes he is lost.
“What do you say?” asked Flounce.
“How did you find me?”
“Does it matter? If we go now, you’ll be back before that slut gets off work.”
“Don’t call her that,” I warned.
“Fifteen hundred solids,” repeated Flounce.
“I don’t even know if I have records that go that far back.”
“Fifteen hundred to look.” He twiddled his long, fat thumbs.
I needed the money. What was Flounce really after? Would he harm the girl if he found her? Rape and kill her? I didn’t want any part of anything like that.
I wasn’t worried about myself. I felt sure I could overpower Flounce. And I did need the money. The odds were that I didn’t have anything on her anyway. Years had passed. And even if I did have her old address, she probably would have moved by now.
“I have to tell her first.”
Flounce’s eyes widened. “Who?”
“The waitress. Wait here.”
I found her standing next to a table near the jukebox on the far side of the bar. Two young people, a man and a woman, sat at the table. The waitress introduced the young woman as her daughter Sophia. The daughter was embarrassed by something, her cheeks reddening in the ocher glow of candlelight.
When I told the waitress I had to run an errand, tears welled in her seafoam green eyes. She lunged forward and hugged me. Her neck smelled like a mellon.
“Don’t go,” she whispered.
I put my hands on her shoulders and gently created space between us. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back. And I’ll lose the other guy.”
“Who?” she asked.
“Flounce,” I said. “Don’t pay any attention to him.”
“Who?” she repeated.
I spotted Flounce at the bar. He took a drink from a pint of tequila and wiped his mouth on a pale bicep. Bottle in hand, he started towards us.
“Never mind,” I said. “Wait for me. Don’t leave.”
She slipped between my arms and kissed me on the mouth. Pulling away, she said, “I’ve waited this long.”
She tasted like overripe honeydew. “What’s your name?” I asked.
I looked to the daughter.
“Yes. Her too. Named her after grandmother. My mother named me after my grandmother too. A family tradition.”
“No need to explain,” I said. “I’ll be back. I promise.”
Pockets of light dotted the landscape. After the outbreak, public utilities took a steep price hike and electricity and natural gas had been rationed. With the decrease in artificial light, I had hoped to witness the grandeur of unimpeded starshine. Childhood memories. No such luck. The increase in wood and coal fires created a smog that attached to the city like a stubborn scab.
The cab driver dropped us off outside of the ten story concrete apartment building I called home. Flounce paid. I took the penlight from my back pocket and we navigated through the night to the safety of the building. The neighborhood wasn’t as dangerous as some. Police were supplemented by city-sanctioned armed militia who the residents of the block all chipped in to pay. I was behind on that account.
We climbed the seven flight of stairs leading to my apartment. Inside, Flounce flopped on the couch, heedless of the smelly clothes and blankets heaped over it. Not so long ago I would have been embarrassed about the dirty dishes and empty beer bottles on the coffee table. Not now.
Flounce didn’t look too good, his already watery complexion appearing two shades paler, translucent. He huffed and puffed and produced a pink handkerchief from the bib on his overalls. He dabbed his brow. “It’s hers, you know.”
“This.” He held the cloth under his nose and inhaled. “A gift.”
“You’ve know her long?” I asked.
Flounce mopped the dome of his skull with the handkerchief. “World without end.”
I thought to tell him that the humidity was so low the sweat evaporated before it could form. Instead I said, “You don’t look so good. Can I get you something?”
“Tequila,” wheezed Flounce.
“I have beer.”
Flounce pulled a pint bottle from the folds of his overalls like a magician’s trick. “A glass of ice water.”
I went to the kitchen in search of a clean glass. I wasn’t able to find one so rinsed a coffee mug pulled from the sink. A roach came up from the drain and scurried under a plate crusted with red sauce.
In the living room, I handed Flounce the mug of water. “I don’t have any ice.”
Flounce had already drained the tequila. He took the mug and chugged the water. He wiped his mouth on a forearm. “You don’t have to live like this.”
“A hermit. You won’t find what you’re looking for by yourself.”
Advice from strangers was a pet peeve of mine. “Let’s see it.”
“The money. Did you think I was going to give you anything without seeing it?”
Reaching once more into his overalls, he produced a black leather wallet with a silver clasp. “Pearls before swine.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
Depositing a stack of bills on the coffee table, Flounce said, “I’d be happy to ask her to see you.”
I took up the money.
“She comes to all who seek.”
I said, “This is seven-hundred. We agreed on fifteen.”
Flounce bit his bottom lip. “Half now, half on delivery.”
I noticed that the apartment smelled of fermenting pinto beans. “And if I don’t find anything?”
“Then I’ll pay what is owed.”
I pocketed the bills. “Eight hundred, right?”
“The balance due,” said Flounce.
The computer sat on a desk next to a small flat screen television. “I hope the battery holds out.”
“The flesh is a feeble prison,” said Flounce from the couch.
I ignored him and typed the name ‘Sophia Inaculado’ in the search bar on the computer screen. I found it weird that the waitress and her daughter were both named Sophia. Too many Sophias for one night. Too weird of a night. Nothing to do but roll with it.
“And the spirit is willing to escape,” continued Flounce, “if one so desires.”
“Will you quit talking in code?”
The sound of Flounce attempting to lift himself from the couch brought to mind the image of the roach in scrambling in the kitchen sink.
“Come with me,” said Flounce. “Help me find her.”
“What do you aim to do to this girl? Assuming you find her.”
“I’ll find her” said Flounce. “No choice. To protect her from what’s coming. She’s not like us. Innocent.”
I asked, “What’s coming?”
“Hell and everything in it.”
“Right,” I said. I wasn’t interested in apocalyptic fantasies. Too much to hope for. I’d be happy to be rid of Flounce. “Anyway, I already gotta date.”
To my surprise, the search brought up a student file with Sophia Inaculado’s name. Student files usually came with a picture of the student, an address, and phone number. Hers came with only an email address. I had only a vague recollection of what she had looked like. Nothing special. The pretty but plain type. Dark hair. Skin the color of brown rice.
“Ah, there she is.”
Flounce had crept up behind me as silent as some airborne disease.
I spun around in the chair. “You got what you came for. Time to pay.”
“Write it down,” said Flounce.
The chances of locating the girl with an old email address were slim to none. Suppressing the urge to smile, I said, “Fine by me.” I turned and opened the desk drawer.
“But there is a penalty if you refuse my invitation,” said Flounce.
“No buts.” Locating a ball point pen, I scribbled down the address on a scrap of yellow paper, purposely changing an ‘s’ to a ‘z’ to throw Flounce off track. “How about you pay up and be gone. How’s that sound?”
I turned to give him the scrap of paper. Flounce burgeoned before my eyes, his great skull inflating like a balloon. His eyes were fully black with the exception of pinpoints of swirling white where the pupils should have been. I tried to stand but could not.
“I cannot force you,” said Flounce, and his voice was deeper, further away than before.
Falling from the chair, I clutched at my throat.
“Here’s your precious money.”
The bills floated down like green parachutes.
I could not breathe.
“It won’t save you.” Flounce stood watching me die.
I saw only darkness.
I awoke on my back in a field of brown stubble. The sky arched blue overhead. A flat black cloud hung over me. My head felt like a side of beef, skinned and rotting. Lifting a hand to shoo the flies from my face, I felt a stickiness between my fingers. I sat up and inspected my hands. My palms were thick with blood, but I found neither cut nor scrape. My only pain the throbbing in my head. I inspected the remainder of my body, moved my hands over torso, legs and scalp.
As I stood, knees popping, a fracture in the cloud above allowed a strip of light to zag over the parched earth. To the east a dark mountain range jagged the horizon. Creosote and mesquite dotted the landscape. It was hot. My tongue was swollen. The cloud split into two clouds. I was bathed in light. I craved water.
Her body rested next to a buckhorn cholla, the purple-ripe fruit protruding from the stems of the cactus. At first I thought it was a desert mirage. But the body failed to dematerialize as I closed the distance, some fifty feet, to find her sprawled under the cactus, her limbs askew as if thrown from a moving vehicle. It was Sophia, the waitress from the Zuni Bar and Grill. I barely recognized her. Flies congregated at the edges of her mouth. Her eyes had been plucked by birds. Her throat was cut and gaping. I tried to remember what had happened but got no further than the chips and salsa, beer, the cold taquitos. I smelled her breath, tasted her kiss. I remembered candlelight. My stomach cramped.
I staggered away to be sick and came upon tire tracks in the sand. The tracks led north. I lifted my head. Dark silhouettes of city skyscrapers lay on the northern horizon. The two clouds above joined into one and muted the sunlight. Flounce had murdered Sophia. I was never so sure of anything. He wanted me to come looking for him. Back to the city. As if his Sophia, his Pearl, kept the secret of The Grail, and without her I would never find it.
But I could never go back to the city for fear of facing Sophia’s daughter Sophia. How could I ever explain to her what had happened? To buy my story would be akin to believing in miracles. She’d have no choice but to call the police. They’d lock me up. Out here, at least, I was free.
Turning back to the corpse, I felt moisture slide down my cheek. I wasn’t sure if it was a raindrop or a tear. It fell to me bury the body. Say some words over the sandy grave. There was nobody else to do it.