Feature > Fiction
Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

Dead Man's Hand

He comes through my lane with a six pack of beer and a single rose. He has one of those handlebar mustaches, the kind that is perfectly groomed at each tip to make a little swirl like a kiss. He tips his black cowboy hat and hands me the rose. For your eyes, he says.

I smell it, touch one of the velvety petals.

I'm in a band, he goes. He pulls out a card. We play every Friday night at Tennessee Schultz.

Aces n Eights, the card says. I'm sixteen, I say.

He goes, You like music, don't you?

As soon as he leaves, my manager Martha comes over. She wears black gym socks and roots for the Bengals. She's got a dying mother at home and has to wipe her shit, give her a bath. I'm putting you over at Express until Linda takes her break, she says, all business as usual. I tuck the rose through my belt buckle.

Most of our customers at the Acme are just middle-aged women with tattered coupons falling out of little accordion books. I detest the ones who try to use coupons on the wrong items. They like to argue, but I always call Martha over, even if she just uses her all-powerful manager's swipe card to override. Sometimes on break the stock guys will joke. They go, Oh if only one day I can aspire to have an all-access manager swipe card. Then my life would mean something.

*

Patty's my bestie. She's got her driver's permit and sometimes her brother will let her take the car. I show her the card, but not the rose. Creepy, she goes. He sounds like a perv.

He wasn't, I say, but she just puts the ends of her hair in her mouth and blows them out.

I think Tennessee Schultz is a bar. I think they play country music.

Neither of us is into country music, but a real bar is appealing. I like the idea of it, dangerous but still safe, like the time the waiter at the Chinese restaurant let us in the back room to see the boxes of fortune cookies. He let us pick the ones we wanted, kissed both of us and wrote his number on my credit card receipt. We ran giggling into the street, our breaths puffed above us, jackets open, who cares about getting a cold.

*

The door opens with a swoosh, smashing the air conditioning in our faces. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. We find a small table in the corner by the cigarette machine. No one pays attention. Handlebar Mustache Man is on stage, messing with some wires coming out of an amp. The smoke from his cigarette makes question marks above his head. What do we do next?

Patty's wearing a new sundress that makes her brave enough to walk up to the bar. The bartender ignores us, and a blush spreads up my neck. Any minute now he's gonna throw us out.

And then Mustache comes over. So you do like music, he goes.

Now the bartender's there, looking at all of us. They with you? He deals us each a cardboard coaster advertising Jack Daniels. We order beers and the foam tickles my nose as I sip.

Do you have a request, Mustache asks.

I don't know much country, I say, but then Patty pipes up and goes, play something by Patsy Cline. My mom likes her.

Mustache tips his hat at her. You got it, ma'am, he says, and heads off to the stage.

He's like 80 years old, Patty goes, wrinkling her nose.

*

My fortune that day at the restaurant: The world may be your oyster, but that doesn't mean you'll get its pearl.

*

There was one time at the Acme when Martha looked all done up for her night shift. Lipstick, even. At the end of the night, I was heading off to my car when I saw her slip into a pick-up truck that had pulled up in front of the store. She leaned over and planted one on the driver's lips. I couldn't get a good look at him, but I do remember thinking how happy Martha looked. How she bounced right up in that seat and slammed the door like she was leavin' town. Going someplace special. I never told anyone else about it. It was our secret.

*

Eventually two guys come and sit next to us. The one's a limo driver and he's telling us about all the semi-famous people he's picked up—scientists and basketball players and old movie stars we've never heard of. Patty ends up sitting in the other guy's lap and the bartender gets nervous. He tells us we have to go. The two men leave with us, the limo driver plops down a twenty-dollar bill to cover our drinks and someone says, watch it Floyd, as we head out the door. The last words I hear are Mustache singing, I'm always walkin' after midnight, searchin' for you.

*

The limo guy's got a shitty car. Patty and I tumble in the backseat, stepping on all kinds of stuff on the floor—papers, bills, neon hair ties and kids' toys. They pull away like the cops are after us, and a stuffed dog from behind the headrest tumbles on to my lap. The limo guy's friend, Floyd, keeps turning around looking at us. Music, we need music, Patty goes. We're both laughing, everyone's laughing. I can see the limo guy in the rearview mirror looking at me, and he reminds me of the Chinese guy—eyes all dewy and fat, squinting. I lean back and kick the guy's seat. Mr. Jeeves, I say, take me outta here. I pick up a pink tiara from the floor and slide it on my head. Take me somewhere special.

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