Cooks, fiction by Ben Werner

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.

No thanks.

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?

Sure.

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.

What?

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.

No shit?

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.

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