Joe Hershank dragged from one end of the bar to the other. When he poured a glass, he’d stop to heave a sigh and stand still for a moment, collect his thoughts and start towards the other end of the bar where he’d do it again. Joe’s Place was never a town hot spot; even before most decided to leave Driftwood it catered to people trying to get away from lights, and people, and noise. Low music swirls through ceiling fans and cigarette smoke down to the bar but goes unnoticed by everybody in the bar. About 10 years ago Joe wrestled with the idea of buying a jukebox to gain some business. He was afraid his usual silent crowd would get violent if he changed the place at all, thinking they might tear the bar apart and smash the thing in, but he bought it anyway. Nobody came in. Not just new nobodies, even the old nobodies Joe counted on to make rent disappeared; the jukebox was repellent.
“I’ll give it’uh week.” On the 7th day, Joe counted his losses and got rid of the jukebox. His nephews left scratch marks on the floorboards from first trying to drag the thing out before finding a hand truck. A light that hung over the jukebox went out shortly after but Joe never bothered to fix it. He thought it was better to pretend the jukebox never existed. The usuals soon made their way back to Joe’s Place, taking their old seats and ordering their old drinks like the week never happened. Along with the men came a new person Joe didn’t recognize. Nobody in the bar did. Joe thought optimistically about it; after all he was one more drinker Joe didn’t have a week ago.
The novelty of the new patron wore off within an hour when he started talking out loud to himself. He must’ve had a few before coming in, he swayed in his seat, slurred out everything, and let his hair fall into his drink when he looked down at it. Most people in the bar looked like they drank all day but contained it out of respect for Joe’s.
“Iffit all ended tomorruh, I can’t thinkuva thing goin’ wrong” he’d say to the other perched, shoulder slumped drinkers. “Keep it all under wraps, keep it all tuh yourself. HAH!”
He threw back his drink and slammed the glass on the bar. He’d stick around for a few hours and leave, but every day he’d come back with the quiet men.
“Is’all fucked. Lookit this town. I’ma fuckin’ mess. Lookit me in this goddamn bar. Mightas well juss end the whole damn thing if this is all there is.”
Other drinkers despised him. When he spoke out to the bar they’d put their drinks to their lips, mutter curses into glasses and wash their words back with alcohol. “Fuckin’ go on’an die then”. Marshall especially didn’t give a shit about what he had to say; he was too busy figuring out how to bring some food and money home. He once owned a small general store passed down by his father, but people started turning for the city and left his cans dusty once the town felt the country’s decline. He took food from the store home when he could, ate away his profits, and eventually had to give the store to the bank. When he handed over the keys, he came closer to crying than when his father died 9 years ago. Marshall’s quiet when he drinks, a shadow on a stool; quiet at home, too.
“Jus’ shut the hell up …” Jake thought; a mechanic who lost his left hand to a rusted carjack that gave up. “The Good Lord’s gotta plan ya know. Ain’t nothin’, right hand’s fer drinkin’ anyhow. Left was for jackin’ somethin’ else!” He joked, fresh from the hospital, minutes out of a gown. Sometimes when he looked into his glass, his whiskey reminded him of the pool of blood pouring out from under the car. When he dropped it back on the bar, sometimes he thought of the hub pinning him to the ground. With his left arm hanging at his side, sometimes Jake felt his left hand firmly back in place. If he had it, he’d strangle the new stranger. He liked to look straight ahead while he drank; can’t see the drink, can’t see his accident.
“Gimme annuther.” The stranger’s demand was loud and gruff like his thoughts. Nobody listened, nobody cared. “He ain’t the only one with problems”. The stranger knew Jake’s story but without light in the bar to shine on it, forgot all about him. Jake hated his outbursts but stayed in the darkness so nobody would notice his stump, including himself.
“Yessir, the Good Lord’ll take me soon. Sure as shit. Rise me up outta this hellhole and into his Kingdom. 4 turks in and I ain’t been to piss but once. Waitin’ to get up there so I can rain down on all y’all! Hah!” Nobody flinched. Nobody said a word.
“Hey Joe, think I can tab out?” Rick was mild-mannered, thought it the best way to get the good things out of life. It was how he managed to court Desiree Beaumont, first runner up in the Ms. Driftwood pageant. She liked his bashfulness, he her smile. Their relationship was without most of the unpleasantries of an emotional couple; no arguments, no “I love yous”. Their relationship was like the town name itself; two pieces of drift wood who happened to bump into each other and float in the same direction, waterlogged. There wasn’t any passion or many words at all during sex. Their kids, created from Rick’s mechanical thrusts and Desiree’s uninspired moans were growing up to be equally emotionless in the near abandoned town.
Joe reached for a pad and slowly scribbled some numbers down. He started toward Rick and placed it in front of him. “Here ya go, Rick. Have a good one now.”
“Same to ya, Joe.”
Rick left now feeling better; he’d freed himself from the shit the new guy was spewing. Later, when Jake left, and Marshall, they thought the same thing. Joe’s was a place for silence, a place to get away from all their problems. “We’re all thinking this shit, why’s he gotta say it? What’s the pointovit?”
Joe saw the anger mounting in their faces. He knew them to be angry already, just on the verge of exploding, but this was a new look. Their faces snarled and their lips curled as they took a drink in the darkness. With the little light over their hunched bodies, they looked evil. Joe wanted the new guy out, but really he thought he was just saying what everybody thought.
“Maybe it’suh blessin’ to have somebody tellin’ it like it ought tuh be told. Hearin’ it out loud might make ’em all do somethin’ bout it.”
At the same time, Joe really regretted ever buying the goddamn jukebox.
The new voice of Joe’s Place grew, and every day he became louder and more focused on his attack against the town and himself.
“Ya’ll gon’ drink ever’day just like that, eh? Jus’ like me? Guess we ain’t too dif’rent, eh? Guess I’m jus’ yer voice you don’t wanna hear? Cheers tuh me, then, for shittin’ out the truth! HAH!”
“This town’ll kill ya. Seems ever’body done figured that out and ya’ll didn’t. Just stuck here waitin’ tuh die. Hell, I’m jus’ sittin’ here doin’ the same. Better repent before the good Lord takes me tuh the clouds!”
He dipped two fingers into his whiskey and made the sign of the cross over himself. “In the name ov Driftwood, and Joe, and these holy spirits. Forgive me father, for I don’t give a shit. HAH!”
Jake sighed and took a drink. Marshall stared at the stranger for a while, hearing him say “father” reminded him of his own, filling him with anger.
The stranger was loud and Joe was getting nervous. “You should leave fella.”
“How’s ’bout we all leave? This place is Death.” He slammed his glass down on the bar, reached into his pocket and slapped a 10 dollar bill on the counter. “Fuck ya’ll then. Have fun bein’ dead, alive.” With that, the stranger left. Nobody said anything but the mood reclined back to the nothingness it usually held, the nothingness of Rick’s marriage, of Jake’s darkness, and Marshall’s ill-conceived anger. Joe was pushed by the stranger’s last words, was his bar Death? He looked around at the shadows slumped over the bar with hands cupping drinks. They didn’t even resemble people anymore. If the light were on where the jukebox was, he’d probably be able to see them a little better, look at them as human.
“See ya tomorruh, Marshall.”
Joe locked up and went home. He thought for a while before deciding to take tomorrow off. Instead of opening the bar, he called his daughter who had moved long ago, before his bar turned into Death. They talked for a bit but he couldn’t find it in himself to ask her if he could live with her for a bit, just to get out of Driftwood. He eventually went back, turned the key, and watched the dust caught in the sunlight of the opened door. He looked at the scratches in the floor, the tears in the stool cushions; glanced at the yellowed piece of paper taped to the bathroom door that read “Out of Order”. Joe started for the bar, stopped, and heaved a sigh. “Ah, shit.” He thought, turned around and started out the door. He locked it up and walked back home.
“They’ll tear the damn place down.” He thought. “Let ’em.”
Joe Hershank went home and decided it wasn’t too late to start a new life, even if he had no idea what it was. He had to get away from death, from the bar, and out of Driftwood.