It is a mid-winter Sunday evening in Columbus, Ohio; dark and ugly with a lurid orange sun setting in black clouds. Dylan and Frazier are walking into a bar where Dylan ended a week long gig the night before, a bar they both refer to as “The Club” without a hint of irony. Everyone else has picked up their instruments and amps; even the drums are gone. The bartender, an amiable giant called Goose sees them come in and flicks on the red and then the blue stage lights. Except for the PA and Dylan’s amp, the stage is bare and littered with broken drumsticks and guitar strings, pieces of guitar picks and overflowing ashtrays. Partially drunk bottles of beer stand among the empties. Cigarette burns on the carpet are now visible, and in several spots, burned clear through to the plywood. The jukebox is playing an old Rolling Stones song. “Well I told you once and I told you twice…” Dylan rolls his eyes at Frazier, who crosses the empty dance floor toward the stage, his limbs moving roughly in time to the music in something even the most charitable observer would not call a dance.
Frazier and Dylan are most often seen together, though they have never developed any real intimacy; not fraternal, not sexual; to say they were friends did a disservice to that term and lent an honor to a relationship that was not there. They were not buddies, or pals, didn’t even have the sort of wingman and leader bond informing their relationship that is practiced by so many young men. It was just this: Frazier owned a Dodge van and when they met, a Plymouth Roadrunner. The Roadrunner was of no interest to Dylan, but he immediately saw the benefit of a van. Even if the offer was a bit cheeky.
“Look at you. You’re a fuckin’ mess. You need a manager, man. You need me. Haul your shit around. Make sure you get to gigs on time.” Frazier said. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you a star.”
Dylan could see that Frazier would be a total pain in the ass, pushy and entitled. And the observation that he was a mess had not escaped his own notice. Dylan was currently without wheels, taking the bus or coping rides with other band members to get to gigs. Until very recently, he had been driving his own van (a beat up Ford Econoline) on a suspended license. It was currently in a police impound lot, somewhat the worse for wear after sideswiping a row of parked cars after a gig in Ann Arbor. True, he was distracted by the bass player’s girlfriend giving him head, but the police felt the cause of the accident was rather more related to his poor reaction time, the result of the wicked combination of sopers and Jim Beam. He spent the night in jail, the bass player’s girlfriend spent the night in the hospital, and the bass player; well, he quit the band.
Dylan felt worse about the bass player leaving the band than he did about the van (or the girlfriend). He tried to explain it to the bass player this way: “Man, I don’t even like your girlfriend. I was just trying to be nice to her.”
This is what he had to say: “You’re an asshole, Dylan. A real asshole.”
Frazier also received a disability check from Uncle Sugar to compensate for a steel plate in his head. The most Frazier had ever told Dylan about that was his tour leading a platoon of the 7th Cavalry; 2nd Battalion, Company A (“Just like fuckin’ Custer, man”) in Vietnam had been cut short by some sort of accident. Though he did not tell him what kind of accident it was, exactly, that resulted in the steel plate being put in his head.
It was this: 1969 was not a particularly good year to be an ROTC Second Lieutenant, especially one having picked the infantry (“queen of the battle”, his CO had told him) as his branch. He had been sent to Vietnam 12 weeks after graduation. He was not a good leader or even a good soldier; neither brave nor noble and deeply resented by the men he sent, rather than led into action. Men who hated being in the Ia Drang valley in the first place. So when the frag from a grenade clipped a few CC’s out of his skull, all parties were actually pleased when the doctors told him “You’re out of this fight, son.” His men were especially pleased, and it was rumored that the grenade may not have been VC at all. He got an honorable and a Purple Heart.
Dylan had told Frazier even less, just that he was from Pellston; a small town in northwest Michigan and that it was called the “Icebox of the Nation”, and that he thought it was more like the armpit of the nation, and that he had escaped the draft with a particularly high lottery number.
He didn’t tell him that the limp he had (so slight that Frazier has never noticed, or least commented on) was the result of a collision with a 280 pound defensive lineman for the Mackinaw Mustangs that ended his chances for a scholarship. He didn’t tell him that he called a number in Pellston about every other day, pumping quarters and dimes into the payphone in the lobby of the motel.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Ma. Is it my fault? Can’t it be nobody’s fault?” he says over and over into the phone. There was never an answer to his questions, but just hearing her voice gave him comfort.
He didn’t tell him that he hates the long sets, that he hates the starless night sky in Ohio; he hates the way people pronounce their words here. The way they say “the heat needs turned up”. He hates who he is here; what he has become.
So they drink together.
As drinking companions went, Frazier was not ideal. Too small to be effective in a fight; neither particularly winsome nor successful with the ladies. He was, however, a cogent observer of the vibe in any given bar, particularly sensitive to situations with a potential for trouble. He never sat in the inside seat in a booth, or with his back to the door. At the bar, he never allowed himself to be between two people.
“Never let yourself get flanked, Dylan. You never know when you might have to make a tactical.”
That his own drinking was prodigious and frequently seriously complicated his life did not diminish his enthusiasm for it. In fact, just that day he had been fitted with new dentures, after suffering the indignity (the result) of all his remaining teeth being knocked out on the steering wheel of his Roadrunner, driven into a utility pole on Route 42 after a “shot-a-frame” game at Bowlero Lanes only two weeks ago.
His license plate, tossed into the Roadrunner through the shattered windshield and over the bloodied hood by a bored tow truck driver after the ambulance had taken Frazier to Riverside Hospital, was a vanity plate – “45STRYK”, commemorating his record for the most number of consecutive strikes thrown at the lanes.
They are there to pick up his gear but more importantly to find a girl that Dylan had talked to, and who then had booked on him before he finished his set last night. She came up to him between songs toward the end of the last set – a girl with the look of an American Indian about her – black hair, insolent dark brown eyes that offered a challenge and warning. At first he had thought her to be older. There was an age about her eyes but the skin on her hands and her neck was tight and smooth. She was cute enough, almost pretty. She had an allure; some kind of irregularity in her made Dylan feel connected to her and at the same time repulsed him. He thought maybe he had known her in another life, or that someone had warned him about her in a dream. That she could be the one for tonight thrilled him and yet frightened him. Perhaps he ought not to have been thrilled.
He thought she was going to make a request; instead she said that she heard his band was hot shit but that she thought they sucked. She said this in a tight, controlled voice keeping her molars together to prevent her jaw from moving out of sequence with her words; a technique used by people to control their diction when they have had too much to drink. She stood there swaying slightly, sipping her rum and coke through a tiny straw, a cross between a smile and a smirk on her face, looking not at him, but at some point over his shoulder, like she expected something or someone to appear there. There was a needy look in her eyes that made him feel helpless, as if she required something of him that he was powerless to provide. Then she laughed with a sound like breaking glass and walked away.
When the show was over, he looked for her. Goose told him she had left with a big guy who had a yellow ponytail. That’s just what he said. A yellow ponytail. Not blonde. Yellow.
“They been here every night lately.” he said. “Run with those boys and girls over there.” He had jerked his head over his shoulder to indicate a raggedy looking group in biker colors around the pool table.
Dylan looked over at them and seemed to be making a mental calculation as to the desirability of pursuing this girl any further. He was what the other members of his band called a ‘pussy hound’, a moniker not pejorative in those days. And he was. But not so much so that he was always willing to risk adverse circumstances to get what he wanted. Frazier noticed but misjudged.
“The poontang that got away.” he mocked.
“No, we’ll come back tomorrow.” Dylan said.
Now Dylan walked fast toward the stage, leaning forward, with his head bowed as if he were looking for something on the ground. He walked (and stood) with his feet turned out, like a dancer in first position. When he soloed his head was always down too, looking at the neck of his guitar and from time to time out over round, amber tinted and rimless glasses, appearing to scan the crowd. He knew this about himself; his father had often informed him of this and what he considered it to be; not just bad posture but a character flaw. His father, a florid man some 6 ft. 4 inches tall was given to alcoholic rages.
“You are ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag, boy! Hold your goddam head up! Walk with your feet pointed straight ahead! You look like a goddam loser!” This directive was most often followed by hard slaps to the back or side of his head that would leave his ears ringing.
Later, his mother, most often the primary target of her husband’s abuse, would try to soften his criticism of Dylan. “You walk like you’re going somewhere.” was what she said. “Don’t pay him any attention.” She would draw him close and hold him, hold him until Dylan felt safe again, until the smell of baby powder and Bond Street perfume pushed the pain out.
Dylan’s amp is not particularly heavy – a Princeton Reverb – and he slips on its vinyl cover and sets it off to the edge of the stage while Frazier packs up the mics and starts coiling the cords to the monitors and mains.
“Dyl! Get me a beer!” Dylan nods and goes to the bar, which is long and in the shape of a horseshoe. Before he can even order, Goose sets a couple long necks in front of him.
“Guess who’s here?” he says.
“Yeah. Cool.” Dylan says.
She is alone at the end of the bar, staring in to her drink. Somehow, she looks even less pretty tonight than she had the night before. But she was there, and he has come to find her, and he takes a few steps in her direction.
“So we suck?”
“Yeah. Your band sucks. You suck. I suck. We all suck.” She doesn’t even look up at him while she says this; just keeps staring at her drink. Then she does. “Oh. It’s you. Guitar boy. What’s your name, guitar boy?”
The woman, who, yes, is in fact Native American, has the surprising and depressingly inappropriate name of Fun. Her eyes are heavily lidded in green and dark eyeliner. A slutty style Dylan finds exciting; a style she learned in Marion Correctional cosmo class, where she had done thirteen months for forgery. Dylan struggles to remember the name for the rosy border of the upper lip (Cupids Bow) which rose full and sharply on Fun; her lower lip was full; almost too full for her smallish round mouth. The precious little valley running in the center of her face over the lip, (the philtrum) ran to nostrils with a powerful and sharp almost patrician flare that lent a noble element to her countenance.
That laugh again. It was like a recognition that she was talking to a fellow loser; welcome to the club. Dylan knew that in that laugh was judgement but also, perhaps, companionship. He knew what question was coming next. Was prepared to explain to her like everyone else that yes, Dylan was his given name, for the Welsh poet revered by his mother, and not, as so many thought, an affect after the scrawny folksinger from Hibbing whose songs were currently played almost incessantly on every juke box.
“Like Bob? Except that’s your first name. Jesus. I sure can pick ‘em”. Give me your hand.”
“C’mon. What’re you ‘fraid of, guitar boy? Dylan, right?” She seemed to have a bit of trouble pronouncing “guitar”; she said it with two evenly accented syllables – “Gih – Tar”. Dylan wasn’t sure if it was a tribal accent or if she was just drunk.
Dylan read Castaneda, knew his natal charts, all of that. The I-Ching hexagrams. Not that it ever did him any good. He lets her take his hand.
She begins reading his palm, and talking about a weak fate line, and how a mons of Venus block just might be keeping him from being able to get it up from time to time, right? And how he will only have one real love in his life; that music is not his true calling, and that he will be rich, very rich someday. He doesn’t believe that, not for one minute. But he figures she’s having fun with it and if that’s what it takes to keep the ball rolling, that’s all he cares about. She moves closer and puts her boots on the foot rest of his stool, black and white J-toe cowboy boots engraved with skulls on the shaft, bones along the toe, and still holding his hand, pulls herself closer and puts her knees in between his, more than halfway up his thighs. She leans over to study the lines on his hand, and her hair falls onto her wrists. Dylan leans down and considers kissing the back of her head; putting his other hand on her shoulder, but does neither. He doesn’t even notice when the yellow haired man comes up behind him.
His long greasy hair is pulled back into a pony tail; not the man-bun of today but gathered by an elastic band just over his collar. The pony tail hangs six, maybe eight inches down his back. Tattoos on his neck and hands (a spider’s web; the spider in the hollow of his throat, “L-O-V-E” on the fingers of one hand, “H-A-T-E” on the other), he towers over Dylan. There is a patch on the front of his leather vest that says “Breaker” and a number of others with odd words and symbols that Dylan doesn’t understand. They are not merit badges for good deeds. Breaker seems unamused with what he sees.
“You’re in my seat, asshole.” Then, looking back at Frazier four stools down the bar, says, “Better get back to your wife.”
He snorts contemptuously and turns back to his business. He begins slapping Fun; slaps not full swung from the elbow or arm but little slaps from the wrist.
“Doing a little flirting while I was gone? I can’t leave you alone for a fuckin’ minute, can I?”
At first they could be taken as playful, harmless feinting between lovers to mock disapproval or annoyance. But these are too hard and frequent to be taken playfully; these are meant to sting, to humiliate, to shame, and are apparently less than welcome. Fun’s forearms went into a defensive positon, her elbows in at her sides, hands covering her face. She gives a little cry when he pulls her wrists into her lap and holds them there and continues slapping her.
Dylan retreats to his stool, and at first, watching the scene in the mirror behind the bar over the choir of bottles, talks to his beer as he peels off the label with his thumbnail. At the sound of each smack he appears to wince, as if a sudden pain is felt in his own body.
“Any man who would raise a hand to a woman…in a public place…what kind of a man…not a man…a goddam animal is what he is…” Smoke curls up from the cigarette Dylan is anxiously tapping, twirling the ash off on the side of the ashtray on the bar. The ashtray is full, and his cigarette ignites the filter of a previous butt.
“Goddammit!” He holds the smoldering ashtray up for Goose, who doesn’t see him, so he pours some beer into it. Finally turns to Frazier and says “Are we going to just let that go on?”
Frazier looks thoughtfully at the ceiling fan and blows a thin steam of smoke toward the blades.
“Dylan, you know, man, that guy is carrying, doncha? That he’s got pals over there shooting pool? That even Goose ain’t gonna fuck with him? You know that right?”
He drains his own bottle of beer and waves off another round from Goose, who came and took away the ashtray, now a pool of beer with cigarette butts floating in it.
“Dylan. Come on man, let’s get outta here.” Frazier said, slapping money down on the bar and shoving away on his stool. “Let’s leave it alone, man. You ain’t her daddy. None of our fucking business.”
The slapping had seemed to stop and the exchange between Fun and her implacable tormentor was now reduced to threatening tones from him and defeated whimpers from her. He still held her hands together by their wrists, on her lap.
Dylan stands up. The bar goes perfectly quiet as Dylan walks up behind him, puts his hand on the shoulder of the man’s black leather vest and says “I think that’s about enough, pal.”
Fun giggles drunkenly at Dylan’s command. Breaker ignores Dylan.
“Funny?” he says to her. Slap, slap.
Each slap gets harder until her cheeks now begin to show welts in the spaces between the marks made by the man’s fingers. “You think he’s funny?” Slap. “Still? Still?” Slap.
“I’ll give you somethin’ to fuckin’ laugh about.” Slap. Slap.
She freed one hand from her lap and, tries to wave his hands off like one would an autumn fly. She winces and says “No. No, I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean it.” Her eyes fill and pool with tears, which fly off her face with each blow.
“OK fella. That’s enough. Let’s take this outside.”
The man stood up, a full four inches taller than Dylan. He sweeps the bar in front of him with his arm, as if clearing a field for battle. Glasses and bottles go crashing behind the bar. He turns and stands square to Dylan.
“This ain’t the lunchroom, asshole. You gonna do something, do it now.” Dylan notices a teardrop tattooed on his cheek near one eye.
The movement in Dylan’s arm is almost imperceptible, but before he gets a fist made or raised above his waist, Breaker pushes hard on Dylan’s chest with both hands, knocking him off his feet and sending him skidding and crashing across a four top.
“Go back and finish your beer before I have to really fuck you up.” he said. He leans over Dylan, who had fallen on his back. He rests his booted foot on Dylan’s crotch. “I will put my foot up your asshole so far your stomach will come out your throat, motherfucker.”
“I hope you’re happy now.” Frazier says, picking up Dylan from the floor, now soaked with the drinks of the two couples who until a moment ago had been just watching the scene. “I hope you’re just real fucking happy now.”
Dylan’s hands are filthy with the detritus of what accumulates on a barroom floor; even the most hygienic are a cesspool of sputum, ejaculent, spilled drinks, greasy food and street dirt. “Upholstered sewers.” Frazier calls them. Through this layer of feculence a couple small cuts are bleeding profusely on the palms of his hands from the breaking glass, and tears of rage are boiling in his eyes. Dylan is on his feet with Frazier’s help, holding a wine bottle; Lancers, a cheap red wine best emptied in the toilet (often deposited by the consumer there anyway) and the bottle used as a candle holder. It is mostly empty now: it had fallen unbroken from the table. Its heavy crockery fits perfectly in his hand, like a small football.
His head pounds with defeat. But this time, he cannot accept the injustice of a man beating a woman. Any man. Any woman. If he did, he might just as well be part of it, just as well be a woman beater himself for allowing it to happen. Just as well be the kind of boy who would let his own mother get smacked around; to see and hear the blows falling on her. The thuds, hollow thumps, nauseating, grinding cracks and finally the bang and crash of her body falling over her davenport and through the coffee table. “You couldn’t defend me, darlin’.” his mother would say to him later, then a slightly built boy of fourteen. And his heart would choke in shame and impotence. He would not be that boy. He could not be that boy. Not that boy. Not this time.
Breaker, at the urging of the bartender and several others, starts to leave and is pushing Fun toward the door. Dylan watches him propelling her forward with a series of pushes between her shoulder blades. With each. Push. Her head. Jerks back. Her hair flies in a whiplash movement. His friends look up from shooting pool and see him leaving. Some noise, some movement behind him over his right shoulder where only his defeated enemy should be catches his attention, and he begins to turn to see where it is coming from. It is the last voluntary act of his skeletal/muscular system.
What happens; what he does in this moment in time is something that Dylan will not be able to recall with clarity for the rest of his life. The stone bottle makes a moaning whistle as it leaves Dylan’s hand, a perfect spiral through the smoky air. There is a noise like a large dry tree limb cracking as the bottle hits Breaker just behind his right ear. He goes down, a dumb beast at slaughter. Except for the sharp report his head makes hitting the tile floor; he drops with the sound a two hundred pound bag of flour might make falling from a truck. His eyes cloud and a sticky, gooey blood trickles from his right ear; a stream of bright red blood runs from a gash in his scalp through his hair, into his yellow pony tail and onto the barroom floor.
In the bar, it takes Dylan longer than it should have to realize what just happened. Frazier keeps repeating “What the fuck. Fuckin’ A.” before grabbing Dylan and shoving him past the body on the floor, past a few screaming women and drunken men who, still holding their longneck Stroh’s stand over the body saying, “He’s gone man. Lookit him! Dude’s dead! Lookit his eyes!”
Which were in fact undeniable testaments to the lifelessness in Breaker’s face. Frazier shoves Dylan past the end of the bar, past the bouncer’s station where Goose waves them past and hisses at them, “Get the fuck outta here man! Cops are comin’.” And out onto the sidewalk, where Fun, who had run out when her tormentor fell looks up at them, tear streaked make-up running down her face and says “Wait! I’m goin’ with you guys!” and runs after them, Frazier in the lead.
Reaching Frazier’s van, they drive in silence, Dylan sitting on the engine compartment cowling and Fun in the passenger seat. The cold air in Frazier’s empty van smells of cigarettes, weed and stale beer.
“Fuck. Fuck me.” Frazier says. “Somebody there will tell them what happened, Dylan. We’re fucked.”
“I just wanna go home.” Fun says. “Take me to the bus station. No. Take me home. I wanna get my cats.”
She puts her head on the dash, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shake with her weeping. Dylan touches her. She is never again slapped in the face.
So it was that Dylan met Fun and became a murderer that night in Columbus, Ohio, in a bar called The Reservation. Their lives together do not go well, or smoothly. In the bar, or in the consequent years. Not that they had up to this point.
Later, when Frazier is finally dead of his alcoholism, when Dylan and Fun are looking at 30 years on their jobs at Worthington Steel & Blank, taken “only until the band can get some more work, Fun”, when their children have been in and out and in again several State of Ohio penal institutions, including Marion Women’s Correctional, (where Fun learned so long ago to apply her green eyeshade and black eyeliner), when their grandchildren are going to rehab; when Dylan’s musical performances have devolved to evenings playing old Leonard Cohen songs on a battered sunburst Gibson 6 string, Dylan will not even be able to recall the details of this night. He will pull Fun close to him and touch her cheek, and wonder who she is.
H. Scott Derkin