Hard Case

By Glen Bush

The wooden screen door slammed shut sending a rickety echo through the tavern.  The two fans sitting at each end of the hand-made, but not well-made, bar did little more than disperse the muggy, August air. It was St. Louis and August, nothing more needed to be said.  The smiling barfly at the far end of the bar leaned his sweaty face in front of the oscillating fan and called his slurred request to the bartender talking to the three men stuck to their barstools.

“Heeeyyy, Joooeee!  Hooowww yaaa doooiiinnn’?  Yooouuu gooottt annnyyy  cooolllddd beeerrr?”  The words hung precariously in front of the spinning blades, reverberating a metallic pitch toward its companion at the other end.  A booze-soaked pride enveloped his words.   “Wow! Joe, I didn’t know ya could do that there kinda stuff with this fan.  Ain’t that sumethin’? Ain’t it Joe?  Ain’t it?”

Joe, the young bartender with a Rambo haircut, looked down the length of the dim bar, squinting.  Out of boredom Joe answered, “Yeah, Weasel, that sure as hell is funny.  I’m sure glad you showed everybody yer God-given talent.  Yep, Weez, youse need to be in friggin’ Hollywood, in fact, come to think about it, why don’t ’cha just get yer rummy ass out the door now and start movin’ on to Hollywood.”  Joe and the other three men all gave a collective loud but tired laugh.

“Too damn hot to laugh too much,” said one of the men.

Weasel’s comic act had taken everyone’s attention from the slamming screen door.  No one noticed the large man now standing at the opposite end of the bar.  When Joe did turn and see him, the expression on the bartender’s face changed from bored to startled.   The stranger’s massive size, his pure enormity, and rough features, defined him more as a street-tested Goliath than an ordinary St. Louis hoosier.  With the toe of his snakeskin cowboy boot, he slid the barstool away from the bar, leaving enough standing room for his large frame.  His white tee-shirt and boot-cut Levi’s revealed a muscled body more sculpted than grown.  His dark red hair was brushed back, neat.  In his right earlobe, he had embedded a silver crucifix.  A matching silver necklace with a quarter-size crucifix and gold Christ dangled easily against his chest.   No one, however, would mistake this red-headed Goliath for anything other than a Philistine.  For any Doubting Thomas, the tattooed red and black laughing Satan above the words “Come to Daddy” on his muscular right bicep removed all uncertainty.

“Bartender, bring me a Coors.  Cold.  Real cold.”  His eyes never moved from Joe, but even a casual passerby could sense the stranger had already eyed the barfly and the three barstooled men. 

“Buck and a half.”

Goliath reached into his front jeans pocket, pulled out a wad of bills held together by a leather money clip, and peeled off a five and slid it across to the bartender, mechanically folding the other bills over and returning the money clip to its home.  While handing over the five, Joe spotted the second red tattoo on the underside of the stranger’s left forearm.  A red heart, torn and jagged, with two drops of blood an eighth of an inch below the heart’s point, and the words “Fuck You” tattooed above the heart.   

Picking up the off-yellow can of Coors, he drank it down in one long gulp, and set the empty on the bar, and nodded and said, “One more.”  This time he slid two quarters and a single across the bar.   No one spoke, but each man watched—cautiously.  The juke box was playing a  Bobby Bare song.  The oscillating fans droned—monotonously.

“Damn hot in here.  Don’t you have any AC?”

Joe looked at the gold Christ and replied more to it than the man, “Yep, but the boss ain’t got it fixed yet.  Repairman supposed to be comin’ this week, but with this hot streak, everybody’s AC’s on the blink.”

Before the newcomer could respond, Weasel wedged his stringy, dirty-clothed body between the big man and the next barstool.  “Yep, mister, that’s right.  AC been on the blink near on two weeks.  I think skin-flint Carr just don’t want to put out the coin to get it fixed.  He got the only bar on this block, so he thinks he’s in high cotton.  Hey, y’know what else I think, I think . . . .”

“Shut the hell up, Weasel.  Nobody here cares what the hell ya think.  Besides, ain’t youse supposed to be cleaning the women’s shitter?  Youse even finish up with the men’s yet?”

Looking up at the stranger, Weasel shook his head while nervously picking at the dried gum on the underside of the bar rail.  “Yeah, Joe, I done finished both johns and you don’t have to try to embarrass me in front of this stranger. Y’ain’t all that anyway.  Like my old man used to say, ya think yer’re shit on a stick but ya ain’t piss on a splinter.”  Joe shot a cold glance at the Weasel, while the other three men laughed. 

“I ain’t heard that expression since Hector was a pup,” said the stranger.   

Ignoring the other men, the stranger eyed the little man, “Weasel, huh?  Well, Weasel, maybe you can help me.  I’m lookin’ for an old girlfriend of mine, Betty Shulz, she used to live over on 13th, around the corner.  Been maybe a little more’n ten years ago.  She’s kinda small,” and held out his hand even with his dangling gold Christ, “a strawberry-blonde with freckles, fat lips, and green eyes.”

“Naw.  Can’t say I do, but I only been around here for about five six years.  I’m from the Soulard area.  Moved up here to help my sis out.  She got in a car accident and can’t do much for herself so’s I do a little when I can.  Say, Joe, youse know some woman named Betty Shulz?”

Holding up his hand, putting is index finger over his mouth, the stranger stopped Weasel from going on, “Weasel, I’m not interested in your family history.  I just asked you one simple question.  Clear?”

“Yes, yes, sir.  Nuthin’ else.  I got it.  Nope.  Don’t know no Betty Schlitz.”

“Shulz, not Schlitz.”

“I know her,” said the man sitting on the third barstool, “She used to run with my cousin Patty.  Iffen she’s the same girl, she married some hoosier and moved to the country.  Been three four year ago I’m thinkin’.  What’s yer name?”

“Sid.  Sid Aldean.  Thanks.  I’ll be seein’ y’all.  Too damn hot to be in this sweatbox. I’ve had enough hot weather.”  Then, as if on second thought, Aldean stopped and turned around.  Facing the bartender he reached back into that same front pocket, pulled out his handful of bills, and stripped off a twenty.  Laying it on the bar next to Weasel, he said, “This here twenty is for Weasel here.  Give him drinks until it’s used up.”  Aldean looked down at the short man, nodded, winked, and then turned and walked out the front door instead of the back screen door he had entered.  Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town” was playing on the juke box and the five barflies sat quietly, watching.   

“Hey!  Thanks, Mr. Aldean!  I appreciate this.  I’ll buy ya a drink next time.”  Aldean never acknowledged Weasel’s words. 

***

The kitchen window and door were wide open.  The window held a box fan that blew a steady stream of heavy air across the five men sitting around the kitchen table playing poker.   A pile of change lay in the middle of the bare wooden rectangular table.  Beer cans littered the table.   A man wearing an unbuttoned light-weight tiger camo US Army fatigue shirt over a beer and mustard stained wife-beater had the largest pile of change in front of him.  The other four men had smaller amounts.  Two of the piles were collected into random mounds, another player had his coins stacked neatly in columns—nickels, dimes, and quarters.   Sid Aldean had two quarters, three nickels, and eight pennies.  He was moving one of his quarters around in small circles, half looking at his meager collection and half off in another world, another time.  Across the room, a transistor radio blared Country Joe and the Fish singing about Vietnam and the government, two things Aldean wanted to forget.   

“Aldean!  Wake the fuck up!  Ya playin’ cards or back in the Nam?”  The player with the tiger camo slapped the table and started laughing.  “Look at this sick sumbitch! He can’t figure out if he’s humpin’ it down a jungle trail or shufflin’ back to his cell!  Aldean!  Get your head out of your ass!” Sid glared at the player doing the ribbing, then turned his eyes toward the back window. 

The player with the neat stacks slid the pack of cards to Sid.  “Your deal, Sidney.”  Sid picked up the deck of cards, shuffled them, and dealt.  When he got to Tiger Camo, he stopped, card in hand, and looked squarely at the player’s eyes.  “Keep your fuckin’ thoughts and comments about me to yourself.”  The card then left the dealer’s hand and landed gently atop the pile of change.  Tiger Camo stood up, real slow-like, and moved around the table toward Aldean.  Their eyes never left each other’s line of sight.  Aldean remained sitting, but clearly wound and ready for whatever Tiger Camo could bring.

Tiger Camo’s right hand slipped behind his back and then quickly shot forward.  He was holding an open buck knife. 

“Aldean, I don’t care how long you was in-country or how many years you spent in the joint, yer shit still smells.  I’m gonna cut your fuckin’ balls off and ram ‘em down yer fuckin’ thro . . .” 

Before Tiger Camo could finish the word “throat”, Sid Aldean was standing up, feet squared into a fighting stance, and throwing a blinding four punch combination.  The fourth punch glanced off the top of the falling man’s head; the first three punches had all been solid punches that lifted Tiger Camo off his feet.  Lying on the floor with his knife beside him, his mouth open and spilling out spit and blood, Sid Aldean kneeled over him, then adjusting his feet, he sat on the beaten man’s chest, picked up the buck knife, and slipped the point of it into the man’s nostril, quietly taunting him with the knife point.  Then, standing up, Aldean looked down at the bleeding man, tossed the buck knife out the screenless kitchen window, and looked back down, laughing.  “Well, bitch, you gonna lay there bleeding and cryin’ or you gonna get the fuck up?  Your call, motherfucker.”

The other three players hadn’t had time to move before Sid had finished his attack.  No one said anything.  They had all seen fights aplenty, but never had they seen a set of hands this quick or this devastating. 

“Damn, boy, you got some fast fuckin’ hands!”

“Remind me not to fuck with you, Aldean.”

“Hey, boys, it’s all good.  Fuckhead here just thought that his Airborne training was going to save his ass, right Airborne?”  Then, as though he had just remembered he hadn’t picked up the milk and bread from the store, Sid Aldean stepped over to the kitchen table, cut Tiger Camo’s stack of cash into two piles, swept up one pile of coins and put them into his left pocket.

“I gotta go.  Gotta find Betty.  I’ll be back later to finish this game.”  Looking down at the still subdued bloody player, Aldean said, “Thanks for my cut of the take.”  And out the kitchen door and across the backyard and down the alley Sid Aldean strolled, gently bobbing his head and quietly humming an indistinguishable tune from his past.

***

     Sitting in the dim light of his brother’s extra bedroom, Sid Aldean read over the letter that had been folded over and over so many times that it was now more a collection of creases and smudges than fading handwritten lines.  That didn’t matter to Aldean.  He had been reading the letter for years, since his first tour in Vietnam.  Betty told him how much she loved him. How she would wait until the twelfth of never for him.  He traced his finger along the creases.  One crease after the other.  Each crease represented a time in life.  First year in Vietnam.  Hospital rehab.  Second year in Vietnam.  Second rehab.  Back in the world. Trip from San Francisco to St. Louis.  Stop off in Kansas City.  That bar fight in KC, in the strip joint, drunk, over the Thai stripper, that crease was long, damn long.  Missouri State Penitentiary.  The creases for this time were short, deep, crisscrosses.  He read the words without looking at the letter.  He couldn’t decide if it were the words or the creases that eased his emotions.  The smoldering fire inside him kept a steady heat going.

 It had been years since he’d felt any coolness.  He wanted it again. Maybe, he thought, as he folded and unfolded the letter, once he found Betty, he . . . they could find a coolness together.  He wanted to feel that cool breeze again crossing his cheeks and lips as he and Betty had when they sat on the bench next to the Hyde Park Pond.   Kids playing Frisbee, old men cane-pole fishing, a cop strolling through the park.  Sid Aldean never thought about a smoldering fire in those days.  Then it was just him, Betty, and their imaginary family, the one they would build when he got back from the Army.  They were even planning on how and where to spend the money from his G.I. Bill, a two-bedroom house in one of the many new suburbs springing up around St. Louis County, away from the North St. Louis grit, away from the city.

“Hey, Sid, you in there?” called Will, his younger brother.

“Yeah, Will, what’s up?”

“Talked to a trucker at the machine shop from the South Side today.  He knows Betty.  Said she moved back to St. Louis a few months ago.  She’s hanging out at the Silver Spur on Russell offa Broadway.  Said she goes by her married name, but he couldn’t remember it.  Anyways, Silver Spur, especially on the weekend when they got a band.”

“Thanks, Will.  Guess I know where I’ll be tonight.”

***

Walking down the uneven, broken and cracked brick and concrete sidewalk, Sid cast a blind eye to the two and four family rowhouses, all looking the same—red brick, dirty windows, limestone stoops.  A few people here and there were sitting on their stoops drinking beer, or, now and then, sipping from a heavy restaurant style coffee mug, reminiscent of their brothers and cousins on the North Side.  The men offered a quiet nod or a slightly raised index finger.  Aldean acknowledged each with his own almost imperceptible nod.  As though members of the same club, they wore work denim jeans, tee-shirts, heavy work shoes, and revealed deeply tanned arms and faces, some laced with a mixture of thin, broad, or jagged scars.  They were all Friday night rich and would be Monday morning poor. 

 

The Silver Spur was a corner country western bar.  The door was held open with an empty half keg.  A heavy odor of stale booze drifted from the darkened opening.  Neon Budweiser and Schlitz Beer signs draped the side windows offering the only immediate light.  How many of these places had he walked in to, and how many had he stumbled out of?  Maybe this time he wouldn’t be stumbling out.  After all, he had a purpose that didn’t include drinking and fighting.  Sliding easily onto a barstool, the North Side Goliath stared into the mirror behind the bar while waiting for the skinny, flat-chested, bleach-blonde barmaid to make her way to him.  The band was tuning up.  In another hour, the Silver Spur would be packed. 

“Damn, you’re a big one,” exclaimed the barmaid as she put a coaster in front of Sid.

“Yeah, we come big on the North Side, not that midget shit like down here, ha, ha, ha,” responded Sid.

“Sense of humor, too.  Not bad.”  Her wink put the period on her comment.  “Wha’cha y’all drinkin’, cowboy?”

“Give me a glass of that draft you got there.  I’m going slow tonight.  Waiting for an old friend.”

“Well, cowboy, if she don’t show up, let me know.  If you’ll still standin’, I get off at two.”  Another wink and a smile.

Three beers later a thirty-something chunky dishwater blonde, wearing a blouse and skirt a couple sizes too small, strolled up to the bar.  Her spiked heels added another three inches to her lumpy figure.  Leaning against the corner of the bar, she looked around to see what there was to be seen, waved to the long-hair drummer, and then called to the barmaid. 

“Fuzzy Navel, Nancy.”

“Sure thing, Betty.  How ya been doin’?  Little Kenny get over that flu?”

“Everything is good.  Thanks.  You seen J.T. in here tonight?”

Sid Aldean took a second, then a third look at this Betty.  His Betty?  A little heavier than he remembered.  A little more hoosier, too.  But, yep, that’s her, no doubt about it.  We all collect a few bruises and lumps along the way.

After the barmaid left, Sid looked over at the woman, reached out, and gently tapped her on the shoulder, “Betty.  Been a long time.”

Squinting, she tried focusing on him.  Suddenly, her eyes lit up and a smile brightened her face, “Sid!  Sid Aldean!  Damn, I thought you got killed in Vietnam.”

Although she was smiling, she edged a little backwards.  Her body language let him know that she wasn’t too excited about getting any closer, in any way.  He pulled his barstool over to her and sat down, just out of arm’s reach.  Their chitchat was the dull catching-up kind that people have every day when they come across an old acquaintance who has been out of their line of sight for more than a decade.  Sid let Betty do most of the talking.  He didn’t see the necessity of explaining about his second tour or his prison time.  Betty didn’t ask.  Instead, Betty went on about her ex-husband, three kids, two boys and a girl, and her job at the shoe factory. 

A couple of beers and a shot of Peppermint Schnapps later, the bar was filled with drugstore cowgirls and cowboys drinking and dancing to the band’s honky tonk music, each trying to forget the past week at the factory.  Betty was getting liquor-bold and started moving a little closer to her old flame.  In the midst of this Silver Spur Friday night, a short, scrawny, leathery faced man wearing a white straw Stetson knock-off and a new K-Mart cowboy shirt, red with white piping and a bucking bull above each pocket, wedged his way between Betty and Sid.  Ignoring Sid, he grabbed Betty and tried to pull her off the barstool.

“Come on, Betty, I been lookin’ all over for ya.  You was supposed to meet me back at our table with Stan and Mindy.”  His skinny hand latched tightly onto Betty’s forearm.

“J.T.!  Get the hell away from me!  I’ll be over there in a minute.  I’m talkin’ to an old friend from the North Side.  Just calm your skinny ass down.  This here is Sid Aldean.”  Squirming, she tried to get her arm loose from J.T.’s grip.  Sid had already stood up, slid his beer a little toward the back of the bar, and stepped clear of his barstool.

“Fuck your old . . . .”

Before J.T. could finish his sentence, Sid grabbed him with his large hands and spun him around and held the little man square in front of him, “Shut the fuck up and move on.”  Aldean’s words were hard as cold cast bullets.  With that Sid shoved J.T. away from the bar and into a group of people talking near one of the high bar tables.  As J.T. collided into the group, one of the men pushed J.T. back in the direction of the bar.  For a moment, J.T. was no more than a ball in an oversize pinball machine.  And like any metal game ball, he was at the beck and call of the players and gravity.  Another push from another man, and J.T. was on the floor struggling to get up.  His struggles were accompanied by the band’s rendition of the Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues” and the laughter of those standing around watching him wriggling around seeking a steady spot for standing. 

“Well, damn you, Sid, help me get J.T. to his feet.  He don’t deserve this kind of shit.”  Her eyes were slits surrounded by reddening fatty cheeks.  The three-inch heels weren’t conducive to bending over and lifting.  She teetered and tottered, trying to pull J.T. to his feet. 

“Dammit, asshole, help me!”

“Help him?  What the hell for?  He’s the one that came in all gangbusters trying to play John Wayne.”  Sid’s laughter blended with the other laughter around the bar. 

As J.T. made it to his knees and was beginning to rise up, Betty stood up and moved a little closer to Sid.  “You see, asshole, that’s why I quit writin’ ya.  Youse just a mean sonofabitch.  And I knew that Nam would either kill ya or make ya worst.  Just get the hell away from me and J.T.  We don’t need yer kind.” 

Sid stopped laughing.  Staring first at Betty then down at J.T.’s scratched and bleeding forehead, all he could think was, “What the hell brought this on?”  In this unbiblical setting, the Goliath, towering, muscled, and scarred, stood twice as tall as the scrawny J.T.   

“Fuck this twerp and you too.”  Sid then jerked J.T. straight up off the floor, the short man’s cowboy boots barely touching the floor, and bitchslapped him

, sending him reeling back against Betty and her barstool. 

No one had noticed, but a police officer had walked in and witnessed J.T. struggling to regain his balance.   Before the officer could elbow his way through the throng of onlookers, he saw Aldean’s hard slap and J.T. and Betty’s tumbling against the barstools. 

“Stop that crap right now!”  The loud words interrupted but did not overcome the barroom noise.  The spectators as well as Sid, J.T., and Betty all turned and looked at the police officer.  “Everybody, back off and go on back to your tables and your dancing.  Go on!  You don’t want me to call for back up, big fella.  You don’t want to spend tonight in jail.”  Then quickly glancing around at the onlookers, he ordered them again, “Get back to whatever you were doing before this tall sack of shit started acting up.”

Once again, the cop eyed J.T. and Betty, but then quickly turned and made direct eye contact with Sid.  There was no mistaking the officer’s intention when he looked at Sid Aldean. 

“Just sit back down, big guy,” the officer’s words weren’t enough to hide the sick feeling of ground glass in his stomach.  “Come on, big guy, don’t be a hard case.  Just calm down.”  The cop’s words couldn’t stop the inevitable.

There had already been too many orders directed at Sid Aldean.  He had enlisted in the Army in the first place to get away from all the orders his father keep yelling at him, and then there were all the orders he took from know-nothing ROTC officers in Vietnam, a good reason for him to volunteer for as much in-country duty as he could get, the jungle had a chaos he could appreciate, and then all those damn rules in prison, and now, here in the Silver Spur, while he was just trying to talk to Betty and get things back to like they had been when they were on that bench in Hyde Park, damn, damn, damn, orders and rules!

Sid Aldean felt his blood run hot and his face and neck burn.  Unconscious muscle memory took over. His feet squared around, and his left hand reached out and grabbed J.T. by the front of his new cowboy shirt and then he sent a crushing right fist into the runt’s temple.   J.T.’s body collapsed at the officer’s feet.  The Goliath then returned the officer’s cold stare. Shuffled his feet to a better position and let loose with a series of combinations that put the St. Louis Police Officer on the floor next to J.T.

Betty was crying and screaming. “Stop!  Stop!  Sid!  Stop it!  You’ll kill ‘em!” 

Sid turned to Betty, saw her tears, and heard her crying while he looked from her frightened face to the bleeding cop. 

“Sid, please, stop it.  Just stop it.  Get out of here before anything else happens.”

Sirens were blaring, getting louder.  Someone had called in an “Officer in trouble” call.  In a minute there would be a dozen cruisers outside the Silver Spur. 

Sid Aldean stepped over the two bodies on the floor, looked over at Betty, shook his head as if in disbelief, and walked out the front door.   The cool breeze blew gently against his face causing him to smile.  Continuing to walk, strolling as though he were in an Easter Parade, he whispered, “I love these cool nights.”


Bio: Glen Bush has published crime/crime noir stories in The Yard: Crime Blog, Close to the Bone, and Murderous Ink Press. Currently, he is working on a series of interrelated stories and novels. Since retiring and moving the Lake of the Ozarks, he spends his days writing as many stories as he can fit into a day. Before retiring, Bush taught English in college and published over thirty literary articles.

His other story on The Yard: Crime Blog is called “Unforgiving Memories

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