Little Trees and Paper Lanterns
I met Sheldon after he fired a shot from a flare pistol down his pie hole. The thing blew up in his gut and licks of fire came out of his ears and nostrils and back up out of his mouth, which he aimed skyward. The discharge lasted about twenty seconds before the flame gave way to sparks and copious amounts of smoke.
A pair of hanging paper lanterns rigged with a string of twinkle lights over the bar deck ignited in a sort of afterthought. The waitress broke out the fire extinguisher and yanked down the charred mess, thoroughly disgusted. Smoke leaked out the flare guy’s nostrils and maybe his other orifices. It smelled awful.
A cheer went up from the spectators— all guys. The women had retreated behind the sliding glass door that usually remained open during business hours, but was now shut. People coughed and returned to their conversations and dates in progress and drinking. Inside, sports were on two screens and Bob Ross painted little trees on a third. Me, the waitress and flare guy were the only ones left outside on the deck.
“That was incredible,” I said.
“Glad you liked it. Name’s Sheldon. Buy me a beer.”
“You bet!” I beckoned with two fingers into the waitress’s death stare as she put the extinguisher back and stuffed the smouldering lights into a metal trashcan and went inside. It was September and a bit chilly in the twilight, but still pleasant. Sheldon sat down at my two top. I tucked my doorstop fantasy novel under my thigh, a little ashamed I’d brought it along in the first place, even though that’s what I always did. It was too dark to read without the lights anyway.
“How? —” I said.
“I’m a regular,” he said. “Fucking waitresses ignored me because no tips. No tips because they ignored me, right?”
“Sure.” I always left big tips. They still pretty much ignored me. “But how — ?”
“I got a little depressed and decided to kill myself inside, right in front of the bar, to make a statement. I didn’t have a gun, but I had a friend with a boat once. I stole that from him because I thought it was cool.” The flare gun rested alongside the condiment caddy. It seemed to be made out of orange plastic.
“I figured that would get their attention,” he said. “Like a firecracker going off inside a toilet. An incendiary shitshow, you know?”
The waitress came back, threw down the two beers and the burger and fries I’d ordered earlier. She left without asking if my smoldering companion wanted anything. The sliding glass door slammed shut again.
“That was mid-July,” he said. “Been doing this about once a week since. Of course I have to do it out here on the deck and only on Monday nights now. I’m thinking of moving to another bar. Maybe do a circus act. They do not appreciate what they got here.”
“Does it hurt?” I said.
“Like a sonofabitch.”
His eyes were twin burning suns of resentment for a life spent as a geek, an outsider, somebody not cool. An expression I recognized.
“In that last second — which goes on forever, by the way — I thought, shit, this is the biggest fuckup in my Clusterfuckology PhD program. But it turned out I was a lot stronger than I thought. I really surprised myself.”
“Wow.” I didn’t ask about his other fuckups, having enough of my own to share, should anybody ask. If he wanted to know about me, for instance, I’m not sure about his Clusterfuckology degree, but I have one too. A PhD in classics. I work at Sears.
He sucked down another third of his beer.
I took a bite of my burger. It tasted like burnt shit, but I couldn’t be sure if the source of the taste was the kitchen or my companion. I wasn’t going to complain.
“So,” he said. “You wanna try?”
I looked at the flare gun, my burger, the beer. It was getting chilly out. I had my book and five more volumes in the series. All of which are great, by the way, based on Greek myths, done with considerable scholarship. They’re very entertaining. I’ve read them before. “No,” I said, doubting my own god-like properties. “I’m good.”
He finished his beer and slammed down the pint glass like he was pissed off. He got up and left, taking his orange flare pistol with him.
He never did ask my name. Or what I was reading.
Next time I’ll sit inside, with the rest of the people and away from the twinkle lights. I’ll read or I’ll watch Bob Ross paint those little trees. It’s nice to see a real artist work once in a while.
Robert P. Kaye’s stories are forthcoming at Potomac Review and Juked and have appeared in Atticus Review, Hobart, Juked, the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, Beecher’s and elsewhere, with details at www.RobertPKaye.com. He facilitates the Works in Progress open mic at Hugo House in Seattle and co-founded the Seattle Fiction Federation reading series.
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