The whole trouble started at Mass, or more accurately, when we weaseled out during the liturgy and sneaked into father’s library. What led us to the library is anyone’s guess, I suppose, though our father would mark it as one more proof of the sovereignty of God. Father taught the Catechism class at St. John of the Cross and shared an office with one of the elder clergyman at the church. It was on account of father’s teaching role and our slightness of age that neither of us was experienced in the ways of the drink. It’s safe to assume that we mightn’t have even found the half-empty bottle of Eucharist wine if it weren’t for Lyle’s compulsion to open drawers, but there it was in father’s desk, waiting for us like summer vacation.
Without much deliberation, Lyle slid the bottle under his shirt and tucked it in his armpit, and we slipped out the back into the cemetery. We respected the gravel path until we reached the larger graves back by the culvert where we cut across the grass to duck behind the standing tombs. The willows scattered across the grounds were green with summer, but the tombs were old. Patches of mold stained the white granite, and iron grates that guarded burnt-out candles spoke of respect and finality.
With a glance to make certain we hadn’t been followed, Lyle tried to remove the cork without success. Then, just like in the movies, he cracked the neck off against the back wall of the tomb.
“That’ll do her,” he said, and took a drink. He gulped, winced, and passed me the bottle. “Now you.”
I raised the bottle to my lips to do as he did, but the pointed tips of the broken neck scared me from taking a swig.
“If you ain’t got the mud, then give it back.” He grabbed the thick of the bottle, but I tried to twist it away from him. In the jostle I lost hold and the bottle dropped to the ground, shattering against a stone and splattering across our shoes and pant legs.
“Figures.” He shook the wine from his pants.
“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”
“Ain’t no such thing,” Lyle said. He rested his shoe atop the largest shard of glass, looked at the scattered pieces around the stone, and crushed it with his weight.
- - -
That wasn’t the end of it. Our little adventure got us talking about beer and chewing tobacco and the air of masculinity the two habits carried with them. We argued about whether they were sins of the flesh and if on account of them our Uncle Herb was headed straight to the fiery pit or upward to the golden city. We finally decided that if they were, indeed, sins, then a hell of a lot of people would stumble their way into Purgatory with Uncle Herb. Our compromise was good enough for me, but not Lyle. When his whistle gets whet, things don’t die easily.
So when a few days later Lyle told me his plan, I couldn’t say I was surprised. Lyle had set to asking around. His school pals drank in people’s backyards and at the drive-in movie theatre, but they didn’t know anything about the local bars. Father wouldn’t tell him a bit of nothing and scolded him for even asking, stabbing his fingers into Lyle’s sternum. The rest of the adults he talked with all seemed suddenly to grow a conscience when asked the question.
It was the mailman, strangely enough, the pleasant-looking bald man, who had the first good bit of information. I was there with Lyle when the man walked up the front porch.
“If you’re looking for a bar that won’t make a stink about you being there,” the mailman said with a smirk on his face that showed he enjoyed furthering our delinquency, “Piccolo’s is your place. Got a pool table and juke box, and the men won’t pay you no mind.” Then he took a serious tone and warned that the owner didn’t take too kindly to patrons parking behind the place. “Out of respect for his old man,” he said. He went on about the lake in the back and how Piccolo had off and died sitting in his boat. “Boat was still tied to the dock, the story goes, and there he was, slouched over like he done fell asleep and went to God.”
The mailman stared off to the side.
“Anyway, Piccolo’s son Roy runs the place now. As nice a man as any, I suppose. Roy’ll take care of you.” He finished riffling through a stack of envelopes and handed over the mail with a smile.
- - -
Lyle’s paint-peeled truck drove down Highway 80, the rural part that runs along the river side of Vicksburg. On account of the new moon, the southern skies were lit up with stars, and as always, we’d rolled our windows down to catch the breeze. Lyle flicked sunflower seeds out into the dark, and I carved paths into the warm air with my hand.
“Think there’s ghosts?” I asked him.
“What are you talking about?”
“Back by the boats. Do you think old Piccolo’s ghost is still hanging around?”
“Ain’t no such thing,” Lyle said. “All I want’s a drink anyway.” He cracked a seed in his mouth and flicked the shell out the window. “You know, we’d probably have another brother if you weren’t such a mistake.”
“You always say that,” I said. “Why do you say that?”
“It’s the truth. Mom and Dad gave up after they had you.”
“What do you know, anyway? Maybe they had finally got it right. You ever think of that?”
I tried to get away from my older brother by sticking my head out into the wind. Great drooping willows lined the sides of the highway, and tar-patched cracks split the road up all over.
- - -
The truck rumbled into the gravel lot out front, and Lyle killed the engine. The blue and white neon sign on the roof flickered every few seconds. The place didn’t look busy, and when we got inside, we found out that it wasn’t. We walked up the porch steps and past the screen door and saw four men sitting around a wooden table by the bar. A dozen or so empty tables filled in the gaps around the room. The light from the ceiling fans struggled through the cigar smoke and dust. Only one fan was on, which meant the others must not have worked. Off to the left were the pool tables, their green felt surfaces holding the stains of spilt drinks and the rips of stray pool cues. Bluegrass sang from the jukebox, which at first thought was really an odd sort of thing but after a few moments felt exactly right.
The fat man with the handlebar mustache sitting at the far side of the table looked over and nodded his head to get the other three to look. After paying us a glance, they went back to their cards and beer.
Lyle had removed his ball cap and taken a few steps toward their table, so I let the screen door close behind me and inched alongside my brother. Red and blue chips waited in stacks before the men. They were all looking at the heavyset man with the ash beard and no shirt on under his overalls. He spit black liquid into a cup and wiped his mouth.
The youngest of the four men bit his cigar with his back teeth and tapped the table. “If you don’t make a move here pretty soon, Roy, somebody’s gonna have a birthday.”
Lyle went to the bar to grab a couple of stools.
Roy spoke without looking up from his cards. “This here’s a man’s game, boys. Not sure we got anything for you.”
“Ain’t no need to start in like that now.” The man who spoke had a full head of gray. Clearly, he was the oldest of the four. He turned to me. “Don’t you mind him or his mouth. He gets saucy when he loses.”
“My mouth can say whatever it pleases, especially when I’m losing.”
I gave him a long look and figured him for Roy, the owner of the place. He looked unhappier than most, his head an angry bald with a creased forehead and ripples across the back of his neck. A thin ring of hair circled around behind his head. Besides all that, it was strange to think of a son being as old as this man was. I suppose I should have realized then and there that a son was a son was a son, that age didn’t matter a lick when it came to sons and fathers.
Lyle returned from the bar and offered me a stool.
The old man looked to us. “You fellas want something to drink? Ain’t nobody here but us.”
Lyle spoke right up. “I’ll have a beer.”
“Anything in particular?”
My brother looked as lost as he was.
“Never you mind. I’ll take care of you.” He turned to me. “And what about the little man?”
I’d sipped from Uncle Herb’s beer before but couldn’t stand the taste, so my mind raced for the first alcohol-related word I could latch onto. Finally, I had one. “Gin,” I said.
The old man chuckled. “Righto,” he said, and headed to the bar.
“Did he say what I heard him say?” The youngest of them laughed and puffed his cigar.
The old man pointed at him. “So the man likes his gin. Ain’t nothing wrong with gin.”
“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with gin. I just thought—”
“There’s your problem. You’ve been thinking the whole night, haven’t you? No wonder you’re short stack.” The old man returned from the bar with a mug of dark beer for Lyle and a glass of gin for me. “I put it on the rocks for you, little man.” Then he winked.
We sat like that for a while, the men around the table placing bets and us a few feet back, high up on barstools and liquor. The cigar smoke that clung to the ceiling swirled slowly from the fans. There weren’t any clocks in the place, and since I didn’t like the feel of watches on my wrist, I lost all good sense of time. The men hardly said a thing to each other. Every so often, the old man would take a break from the game to pour a round for the six of us. Roy never once moved to serve a drink, even though it was his bar.
After a while, Lyle challenged me to a game of nine ball, and we carried our drinks with us over to the tables. My head was spinning from the alcohol, slow and methodical like the ceiling fans. On my first shot, I accidentally jumped the cue ball off the table and struck Roy in the back of the leg. He didn’t even flinch, but I apologized anyway for disrupting his game. The other men were all looking at me like I broke wind in church. I leaned forward to repeat myself, in case Roy hadn’t heard me, but the old man across the table shook his head.
Whether it was my lack of skill or the liquor in my veins, Lyle ran the table before I even managed to sink a shot without committing a foul. He returned our cue sticks to the rack and downed the last half of his beer. He took my glass of gin and replaced it with his empty mug of beer. “Let’s see if what you got here’s any good.”
- - -
After a while, the men began telling stories between hands. Sweat glistened on their skin as they smoked cigars and drank and talked. The old man was sixteen when he got pushed off a riverboat ferry by the husband of a lady who accused him of stealing. The youngest of them was ten when his older brother tricked him into touching the mosquito zapper. The fat man was twelve when he went out in the morning to feed the chickens and found a gator on the porch waiting for the next poor sinner to wake him up. All of them had been to war and had near-death stories to prove it. Roy didn’t share anything, but none of the men seemed to care enough to ask him. Maybe they knew something I wasn’t privy to.
Lyle pulled his ball cap onto his head and leaned over to me. “Don’t you go anywhere. I want an update when I get back.”
“Where you going?”
“Just stay here, okay?”
I didn’t think much of it until I saw Roy’s eyes follow Lyle to the front door. The screen door clacked shut behind my brother, and Roy anxiously rubbed his hands over his bald head.
The fat man bet the last of his chips on two pair and lost to three kings. He leaned back in his chair, glass on his thigh, and twisted one side of his mustache with a grimace.
The more Roy fidgeted in his chair, the more I wondered where Lyle might have gone. The men kept placing bets and telling stories, but I couldn’t stop myself from checking the screen door every few moments to see if Lyle had returned. After ten minutes, or thereabouts considering I was working without a clock, my young mind surrendered to the steady tick of curiosity.
“I’m going to go find my brother.” I stumbled off my stool and staggered a bit on my way to the bar to drop off my glass.
“You two calling it a night?” the old man asked.
“Look at the kid,” the fat man said. “He’s halfway to Georgia.”
“Good luck with the cards,” I said. “Hope you win.”
“Never believed in luck, son. Don’t need to.”
I nodded and went to move the stools. It surprised me how much more I could feel the effects of the drink once I’d stood up.
“Don’t worry about those. I’ll take care of them later.” The old man extended his hand to me, and I reached and shook it. He pulled me close. “I’ll take care of your tab. You seem like good kids. Keep yourselves safe.”
- - -
Lyle wasn’t at his truck. The blue and white sign clicked and buzzed from the roof. Its pale light caused the gravel parking lot to swim in my pie-eyed vision. Lyle was nowhere in sight.
The hoot of an owl back in the woods behind the bar reminded me of the pier and the boat and old man Piccolo and the possibility of ghosts. I headed out of the neon flicker and around the corner into the shadows. Just as the mailman had described, the only car parked under the tall willows in the back lot was a rusted, yellow, mud-splattered pickup. The canopy of willows stretched a hundred yards or so all the way to the lake, that without the light of the moon spread away from the shore like an inky field.
My eyes were still adjusting to the darkness when a lightning bug thrummed past my ear, nearly scaring the Eucharist out of me and whirling a blur through the air until it disappeared at the lake’s edge. The shore was a silhouette of objects up against the expanse of the moonless lake. An old shack slouched off to the side. A crew of fishing boats lay with their hulls up in the air amid the long grasses. The pier jutted out into the shadows with a couple of boats tied down on either side. There, in the first of the boats, a figure sat on the crossbeam, looking out over the water. The shadowy ball cap had to belong to Lyle.
As I walked closer, I imagined what it must have been like for Roy to find his father slumped over like that.
“Hey, Pops!” he might have hollered. “I thought you were going fishing.”
At a certain distance, he might have even chuckled to himself, amused at the thought of his father falling asleep before ever making it out on the lake. He would have walked to the pier and nudged the boat with his foot before finally climbing aboard and shaking his father by the shoulder.
My eyes had fully adjusted now, and I could hardly believe what I saw. The lake was alive with lights. Thousands of lightning bugs etched glowing paths through the night air, darting down close to the water and drifting up into the willow branches.
“Holy god in heaven,” I said, walking out onto the pier.
Lyle looked over at me. “Thought I told you to stay inside?”
“How come you didn’t bring me with you? You knew I wanted to see his ghost.”
“Ain’t no such thing,” he said.
“You knew this was all back here, didn’t you?”
“Nope.” He tipped his hat up for no good reason.
We sat like that for a while, the water lapping against the side of the boat and the cool of the night wetting our shirtsleeves. I followed the yellow streaks back and forth through the layer of fog, hoping to catch sight of one of the bugs itself. I’d seen them captured in glass bottles before, half a dozen lights bouncing around inside their invisible prison, but out here in the night, all I’d ever seen was their mysterious glow.
“Don’t feel the drink much anymore,” Lyle finally said. “I reckon I’m good to drive.”
“Okay.” I took one last glimpse of the lake.
Lyle stood up carefully and took a step toward the pier, so I stood up too.
A low voice boomed from the shore behind us. “No respect for the dead, boys?”
Maybe Lyle had more drink in his system than he thought or maybe we’d been quiet for too long, but the voice startled Lyle so bad that he lost his balance. He tottered, flailing his arms, then fell backward into the lake. Roy had put a jacket on over his bare chest and overalls. His beard looked ghostly white against his skin. The way his eyes squinted in the middle I couldn’t for the life of me tell if I was supposed to be afraid.
Lyle surged from the water with a resurrection gasp and scrabbled his way up the shore. He made a wide arc around a thicket of trees to keep his distance. The boats were clanking against each other, and the pier was creaking slightly under my feet. There floating face-up in the ripples was my brother’s hat.
Roy and I caught eyes and stared at each other for a moment, unsure of what was supposed to happen next. Slowly, I began the uneasy walk up the pier toward the shack, my eyes trained on Roy.
He just stood there, rotating slowly as he followed me up the bank with his gaze. I felt as if I should say something on account of how we’d defiled the memory of his father’s final resting place. I tried to imagine what our father would have said were he wearing my shoes, but all that came to my mind were verses of scripture, scripture and the sacraments and all the wisdom of catechism.
“The dead in Christ will rise first,” I told him, as if I knew what it meant. Then I turned and ran before he had a chance to respond. I darted between bushes and ducked under the low-reaching fingers of the willow branches. I looked up ahead just as Lyle passed by Roy’s pickup, slapping his hand hard against the tailgate, and that’s when I tripped over a root.
Dirt, leaves, twigs, and the like—I wiped them quickly from my nose and mouth. My face throbbed, and later in the truck, Lyle would point out that my nose was bleeding.
“Figures,” he would say. “So drunk you can’t even run straight.”
I flipped around to check on Roy, but he hadn’t moved from his spot on the shore. Even more surprising to me at the time was that he didn’t even appear to be watching us anymore. His silhouette was all I had to go on, but I’d have sworn he’d turned back toward the lake and the boats and the swarms of lightning bugs. In fact, from my vantage point there on the forest floor something inside me began to doubt whether what we’d seen that evening back behind Piccolo’s was even a man at all.
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