After work, Clint and Danny rolled through the orange streetlights on Main Street and into the darkness on the far side of town. Danny thought about telling Clint to turn around and take him home, where his father would be asleep in front of the TV and his mother asleep in bed. Instead, he watched the houses pulse by through the car window. Clint shucked a cigarette out of the pack he kept stuffed in his chest pocket.
Want one? he asked.
What, don’t you smoke?
I smoke Camels.
Bullshit, you don’t smoke, Clint said and wiggled the cigarette in front of Danny’s nose. Danny could smell the bite of the tobacco.
When I smoke I smoke Camels, Danny said. Clint laughed, slapped the cigarette between his lips, and pulled a long drag. He exhaled, draped his right hand across the steering wheel, and with his other hand trailed his cigarette out the open window. The street was narrow and heavily crowned and the gutters bulged with pulpy cottonwood leaves. The stars were obscured behind thick wisps of clouds and the pale yellow headlights and the orange ember that clung to the end of Clint’s cigarette provided the only light.
After several blocks slipped by, Clint pulled his car into the VFW parking lot. The VFW was a pale cinder block building with a slow sloping roof whose eves hung sad under the night. It sat alone on an empty lot surrounded by moldy weeds and small piles of rubble. In the parking lot Clint turned the car off and they both stepped outside. Instead of going into the VFW, Clint sat on the hood of his car and smoked his cigarette while Danny leaned against the door next to him and waited. The asphalt was slicked wet from the rain earlier in the evening and rippled under the light from a passing car.
It was a busy night, Danny said.
Shit, Clint said. Just the same as any other night. He flicked the butt to the ground where there was a brief cascade of sparks then nothing. Ready?
Inside the bar, Clint sat on a stool and Danny sat on the stool next to him. He felt dampness in the creases of his palms and a steady pressure on his head. He tried to act how he supposed grown men would act when they sat down to drink and placed his hands on the bar, but was dismayed at the sight of his slender hairless fingers and pushed them into his pockets. Clint pulled out another cigarette and lit it.
Only place in town where you can smoke inside, he said.
Okay, Danny said.
Too bad you don’t have any Camels. Clint grinned a crooked grin lined with crooked teeth and the bartender set a Bud Light on the bar in front of him.
Who’s the kid? The bartender asked.
He’s the new prep cook at the restaurant.
Well kid, the bartender said, what’ll ya have?
The pressure in Danny’s head increased. A beer, he said.
A beer? The bartender said and laughed and looked at Clint and they laughed together. Danny wished he had gone home after work like he normally did, wished he had never rode with Clint out to the VFW, wished he had never sat on a stool amongst the unfamiliar ache of neon and smoke.
A beer, he said again. I don’t care what kind.
The bartender pulled a Coors from the cooler and plunked it on the bar in front of Danny. A beer, he said. Just like ya ordered. He smiled and shook his head and Clint laughed. Danny groped his beer and took a drink. It was chilly and the dull bitterness was unpleasant, but Danny kept drinking—too fast, he thought, and he tried to be casual like Clint but the Coors was gone before Clint was halfway through his Bud Light.
Clint and the bartender had descended into small talk and were ignoring Danny. He didn’t know whether to ask for another beer or sit on his stool and watch the neon fizzle above bottles of liquor or maybe ease through the murky half-light towards the bathroom in the back.
Another? Danny said.
Goddamn, the bartender said, we got ourselves a drinker on our hands. Clint chuckled and took a slurp from his beer. The bartender popped another Coors and slid it down the bar to Danny. Danny tried to drink this one slowly, pacing himself with small nibbles from the bottle. He looked around the bar. There wasn’t much, he thought. No throbbing music or wild conversations over vibrant drinks; just a row of stools, a couple plastic wood tables, and a pool table growing stale under an orange Budweiser light. There were a few other men in the bar—worn men cradling amber bottles and sucking slim cigarettes, men creased and folded long ago in foreign lands, men who had fired guns at shapes in jungles. Danny took another drink and two of the men stumped over to the pool table and began to send the balls cracking off each other. He admired the way their pool cues moved as if in grooves and how they struck straight and true, the shaking arthritic hands remembering themselves for brief seconds.
How bout a shot? Clint said.
What? Danny said.
How bout a shot? Some whiskey.
The bartender laughed. Gonna get ‘im drunk, he said.
Sure, Danny said. I’ll take a shot.
Good man, Clint said. Two shots of Jack, he told the bartender, who retrieved a brown bottle.
Make em shooters, the bartender said, winking at Clint, and poured a plug of whiskey in two slender glasses. Clint plucked up his shot and threw it down his throat. He frowned, wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and looked at Danny.
Well? Clint said. Danny pulled his shot off the bar and gulped it down. He concentrated on not making a face and thought he was okay once the burn was gone, but the heated bubbling crawled up from his insides and he coughed, quick and sharp.
Goddamn, he sputtered. Clint laughed and slapped him on the back and the bartender laughed.
Another round, Clint said. You’ll be drinking whiskey like it’s water by the time this night’s over. The bartender refilled the shooters and Clint drank his, following it again with a contemplative frown. Danny drank and he felt the whiskey lacerate his throat and explode his stomach. He coughed several times and his eyes pooled but he held everything inside him. He could vaguely hear Clint and the bartender laughing. The men at the pool table stopped and looked, and then went back to their game.
Clint ordered another beer for himself and another for Danny. They drank in silence and Danny watched as one of the men sent four balls thumping into pockets and won.
Wanna play? Clint asked.
I guess, Danny said.
You play much pool?
Naw, not really.
We’ll play these guys in doubles. You and me. Grab a couple beers.
At the table, Clint was arranging the balls in the triangle while the men smoked in shivering gulps and leaned on their cue sticks. Danny was tingling and felt the world as it sloshed around him and he tried to keep all the colors still and separate from each other. He watched one of the men break and make a few balls. Clint made one and the other man made one and it was Danny’s turn. He lowered over the cue ball and slid the cue in his hands, remembering how the old men ran the stick smooth and confident. The cue ball wobbled and Danny swiped at it with his cue and sent the ball quivering sideways into a barren patch of green felt.
What the hell was that? Clint said.
Shit, Danny said.
The first man made two more. Clint missed. The other man made another. Danny finished a beer and pushed the cue ball into a pocket.
Goddamnit, Clint said. You’re worthless. The two men knocked the balls into the pockets and Danny did not shoot again and the game was over. Danny slumped on his stool and drank the last of his beer and ordered another.
We’re leaving, Clint said.
You don’t need another beer, let’s go.
Where’re we goin?
Mark’s place. Come on.
You gonna pay? The bartender asked Clint.
Just put er on my tab I’ll pick it up next time, Clint said. Meet us at Mark’s when you get off. Clint helped Danny out of the bar and into the night.
In the parking lot Clint dropped the keys into Danny’s hand. Danny knew what they were but at the moment he forgot what they were for. He looked at the bundle of keys with dumb eyes and above him clouds bunched across the sharp stars. It was late and the night was cool and in the VFW parking lot all Danny could hear was the blood moving through his veins and he felt alone on the crust of the world.
You’re driving, Clint said.
I don’t think I can drive, Danny said, still holding the keys in his upturned palm.
Sure you can. You’re driving.
But I can’t. All those shots, all the beer—it’s dark out, Clint. Clint walked away and climbed in the passenger side of his car. Danny wrapped his fingers around the keys and shuffled across the parking lot, his feet dragging through puddles.
The car bumped awake and rolled onto the street before Danny realized that he was the one making it move. He tried to concentrate. The road peeled under the car and away like an enormous conveyer belt, and the houses on the side of the street curled in, then laid back, then dissolved into static. Danny massaged the steering wheel with both hands, nudged the gas pedal, and watched the stale yellow patch of light scrape along the road in front of the car.
Just keep headin this way, Clint said. Mark’s place is a ways out. Danny dipped his head but didn’t say anything. If he talked, he knew his breath would blow the car sideways into the curb, onto a lawn. He kept his hands high on the wheel, and more clouds expanded across the sky. Drops of water bounced off the windshield one at a time, and then the rain came dumping down.
Wipers? Danny whispered.
They’re broken. Just drive nice and easy.
Danny leaned forward in his seat and tried to watch the road through the rain sluicing down the windshield. The car ripped sideways and Danny slid off his seat into the hand break. Clint slammed into the door and his head cracked against the window. Danny tried to stab the brake with his left foot but stuck the gas instead and the car jerked forward and Danny and Clint spilled around and bounced off the dashboard. The car slid to a stop and the rain continued.
Jesus Christ, Danny said. What the hell happened?
Shit, Clint said. He opened his door and looked back. I think you hit the curb. You just hit the curb, that’s all. Goddamn.
Is it okay? Danny asked. Did I hit someone?
The curb, that’s it. I think it’s alright. Let’s just get to Mark’s. It’s only a little further.
Son of a bitch, I thought I hit someone.
Pull back out, I’ll keep my window down and tell you if you’re getting close to the curb.
Danny eased the car onto the road. His hands were fluttering and he felt sick. He imagined a person collapsing in front of the car and blood splashing everywhere, blood covering the windshield and then turning pink as the rain brushed it away.
I feel sick, he said. Maybe you should drive.
Not too far away, Clint said. I’ll keep the window down and watch. Don’t worry. The car moved slowly across the night, crawling carefully block by block.
Almost there, Clint said. Red and blue whirled through the rain and around the car. The deep night was whipped awake by the erratic flashes, and they came stinging into the car and Danny’s foggy head cleared.
Oh shit, Clint said. Pull over. Pull over, goddamnit.
Gimme a cigarette. Hurry. Clint groped a cigarette out of his pack and Danny lit it and pulled quick hard mouthfuls. Roll your window up, he told Clint. And light a cigarette.
The police officer shined his light into the car and Danny rolled his window down.
How’s it going tonight, the officer said, his head ducked under the pounding rain.
Goin okay, Danny said, and dangled the cigarette between his fingers.
Drivin a little slow, the officer said. Ten miles an hour, actually.
My wipers are broke. I can’t see a thing out there.
You know it’s illegal to drive in the rain without wipers? I’m gonna have to see your license and registration.
Danny pulled his license from his wallet and Clint grubbed around in the glove compartment for the registration.
You been drinking tonight? The officer asked.
Danny handed him his license and registration. No sir. Just headin to a buddy’s house. The officer nodded and jogged through the rain back to his cruiser and sat inside.
Son of a bitch, Clint said.
We’re all right, Danny said.
The officer returned and Danny rolled the window down. Rain was dribbling off the officer’s hat in thin streams and his clothes hung heavy and wet. He handed Danny his license and registration. Stay here until the rain stops, he said. I’ll give you a ticket if I catch you on the road with the rain.
Okay, Danny said.
The officer hurried back to his car and the cruiser drove past them and turned around, and the two red taillights drifted away into the darkness. Danny and Clint sat still and didn’t say anything to each other for several minutes. The forgotten cigarette in Danny’s fingers burned low, the smoke puttering out the end and spreading across the ceiling.
I thought you only smoked Camels, Clint said, and he and Danny laughed loudly for a long time.
Once the rain stopped, Danny drove to Mark’s house. Mark lived in a trailer stacked in line with other trailers on a piece of packed dirt that had turned to mud under the rain. By the trailer there was the cindered shell of a charcoal grill and a scattering of pale cracked children’s toys. Clint opened the door and Danny followed. The world was fuzzy on the edge of his eyeballs, but he felt good. He strode inside with slow steps and his arms hung loose and proud at his sides.
Brought the kid huh, Mark said to Clint when he saw Danny.
Shoulda seen him half an hour ago, Clint said. Got pulled over on the drive here from the VFW and he didn’t even break a sweat.
I’ll tell ya, Danny’s got some balls.
Danny smiled and he felt his whole body grow more capable, more fluid. Not a big deal, he said.
Clint laughed and slapped him on the back. Grab three beers, he said.
Danny pulled the beers from the refrigerator and sat on a couch beside Mark. Clint sat in a recliner and tipped his beer into his mouth. The room was full of the sour sharp smell of cigarettes and the insistent bite of alcohol. The small television crackled on top of a chipped table. Danny tried to watch but it was just a throbbing blue orb tripping along against wild lines.
Goddamn cable’s disconnected, Mark said. Can’t watch shit.
Bastards, Clint said. The men and Danny each took a pull from their bottles and were silent. They sat under the light pounding down from the bare bulb in the ceiling and drank their beers, and outside the wind increased and threw more rain against the windows and the corrugated metal roof. Clint picked up a half bottle of Evan Williams and took a sip and passed it to Mark. Mark took a gulp and passed it to Danny. Danny sucked down a shot and set the bottle on the coffee table and wiped the whiskey from his lips solemnly. The men sat, and they had no need to talk and the storm raged outside.
A woman punched through the front door and stomped inside, her hair soaked and stringy and her clothes dripping water. Goddamn, she said and peeled away her coat and dropped it on a chair. She grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and drank half, chugging ravenously. She leaned against the stove, took a breath, and tipped the bottle to her lips and swallowed the rest of the beer.
Jesus Christ, she said and pulled another beer from the refrigerator.
This is Danny, Mark said. He’s the new prep cook down at the restaurant. Danny, this is my wife Deb.
Hi, Danny said.
Hi, Deb said and smiled sideways through slim lips. She sat between Mark and Danny on the couch and drank her beer. Work was hell, she said. Goddamn hell. Her heavily knuckled fingers closed around the neck of the Evan Williams and she poured some down. She handed the bottle to Danny and he drank. He passed it to Clint. The bottle circled through the group several times and the amber liquid sank low. Each time Danny drank it was easier than the last, and the small room was soft and revolving like slow music. Mark and Clint were talking but Danny could not hear their words and a new bottle with clear liquid appeared in his hands and he drank. The house swirled around him and he could feel rain stabbing him quick and cold. His hands and knees clutched at the mud and his body shook and heaved and he sat back down on the couch without his shoes on. His head tipped from shoulder to shoulder and Clint and Mark laughed and their laughter bubbled over Danny’s body and into the walls of the trailer and everything was smeared together.
The door banged open and rain sprayed inside and the bartender was carried through like a flapping damp leaf. When he saw Danny collapsed against the arm of the couch he laughed.
He’s about done, huh?
Bout done, Clint said. Outlasted Mark, though. The bartender sat in a chair. Deb whispered unintelligible song lyrics and ran her fingers up and down the ridge of her thigh. Mark snored on one side of her and Danny bobbed on the other side, trying to keep afloat.
M’goin ta bed, Deb said.
Already? the bartender said. I just got here. Your favorite bartender just arrived—why don’t I mix ya a drink? Deb didn’t say anything and made her way to the back of the trailer with her shoulder running along the stained wall.
A real piece of work, the bartender said. What do you think, Danny? She’s a beauty, isn’t she?
Danny nodded his head roundly. S’beauty, he said.
You know, the bartender said, his long legs and arms folded like a spider’s, when Deb gets drunk she gets wild. You see the way she was looking at you?
Naw. Danny felt a burn begin under his flesh.
Oh shit, she was sure lookin at ya. Young guy like you—
Shit, Clint said, Danny’s gonna pass out, just let him.
I’m not passin out.
He’s not passing out, the bartender said. If I were you, I’d get in there.
Danny rolled his head toward the room where Deb had disappeared. What about Mark? he asked.
He’s asleep. He doesn’t care anyway. He says he doesn’t mind sharing. He doesn’t care, though. Shit, I banged her and he didn’t care at all. Smiled about it, actually.
He doesn’t care?
Danny, Clint said. Just go to sleep. I can drive you home in the morning. Leave him alone, he said to the bartender.
I’m just helpin the guy get laid. You wanna get laid, right Danny?
Mark snored on the couch with one leg tipping gently to the floor and the other resting across the cushions. His nostrils flared and his bulky stomach sighed up and down under his cook shirt. His fingernails, chipped and rough but scoured clean from constant washing at the restaurant, tickled the air.
Sure I wanna get laid, Danny said. He felt a hotness begin in his scalp and wash across him. Sure I wanna get goddamn laid, he mumbled.
Shoulda seen him, Clint said. Got pulled over on the drive over here. Didn’t miss a beat, just played that cop for a real goddamn sucker.
Mark won’t care? Danny asked.
I’ll tell you about how Danny tricked that goddamn cop, Clint said.
Mark won’t give a shit, the bartender said and grinned.
Go to sleep, Clint said. Go to sleep and I’ll take you back home tomorrow.
Go back there, the bartender said.
Danny stood up and his steps fell across one another on the dirty carpet. He knocked a chair over and tried to pick it up but instead put his hand into the wall to steady himself. He walked towards the bedroom and trailed his fingertips along the wall, and his whole body was on fire and he forgot he was drunk.
The room was dark purple and felt heavy and small, stuffed full of atmosphere. Danny ruffled his hands along the bed through the covers and into Deb’s flesh. He folded onto the mattress and found Deb’s head.
Hi, he said.
Hi, she said.
Danny’s fingers fumbled her hair and she kissed him. He moved closer and the blankets were all tangled and twisted between them, but he didn’t notice. He closed his eyes and her thin lips wrapped around his and she tasted like alcohol and after-dinner mints. His shirt stretched off over his head and he felt her hands pulling the skin on his back. He realized she was naked and for a moment he was aware of what she expected from him and he rolled back, but she held him. She scrunched his pants down around his calves and Danny slumped on top of her slippery body. The blankets piled to the floor and the room melted away and Danny’s whole body twisted through a dark universe.
Danny tumbled out of the room and put his shirt on inside-out. His skin was flypaper sticky from Deb’s sweat against his own. The bartender saw him and laughed and shook his head. Clint was on the couch beside Mark and did not laugh.
Course when I fucked her, the bartender said, she was ten years younger.
Danny, go to sleep, Clint said.
Danny swayed against the air and opened the door and stepped into the night. The ground pitched under his feet but he stayed standing. Rain slapped Danny and he started walking towards town and his house. He shivered and put his hands in his pockets and continued walking into the night. His brain was blank and his whole body felt hollow and without edges. After several blocks, he realized he had forgotten his shoes. He kept walking in the dark.
Ben Werner lives in Cody, Wyoming and sometimes Laramie, where he earned his degree in English from the University of Wyoming. While he waits to hear from back from the various MFA programs he has applied to, he is spending his time reading, writing, sleeping, and trying to get a job driving a snow plow. "Cooks" is his first published story.