Where The Big Bad World Begins

Where The Big Bad World Begins

In the autumn of 1986, Bryan Bath decided that he must change or die. It was on the afternoon of his first fistfight, which had been broken up by a truancy officer who reeked of Lectric Shave and Pall Malls. He delivered Bryan to his second home, the Dewey Sampson Hotel and Saloon, where the regulars barely glanced from their early-bird cocktail and supper specials.

Next time, Bryan thought, he would start his trouble where nobody with a badge could catch him.

“Name me a shittier drive than to juvenile detention in Carson City on a Friday,” the truancy officer said to Bryan’s father. “This is easier. Better for the kid.”

Friends and customers called Bryan’s father Dodge, short for Dodger, which rhymed with his birth name, Roger. He was a widower, a self-made survivor. There was talk of his running for mayor of Bliss Valley. His son’s hard luck was a running joke and he instigated it as though laughter and public disgrace could change fortunes. He told the customers that Bryan played with dolls, jerked off into socks, scribbled pictures of dragon dicks, wasted his tips on trash music by colored criminals and androgynous freaks: The Five Jacksons. Princes of Revolutions. Cameos. Bryan was turning gay. Probably. To counter-program, Dodge brought home promotional liquor posters with bikini-clad white women and mustachioed jocks beside Ferraris.

Dodge leaned back on the beer coolers, arms crossed. A terry-cloth towel draped on his shoulder. He said, “Been saying for years that his face screams to kick its ass.”

“His face got its way then,” the truancy officer said.

Bryan smelled like the rabbit-brush his opponent tumbled him into, that mix of white pepper and pissed-on firewood. Unlike his father, Bryan believed no amount of comedy or shame could alter his destiny. His defects were inherited, unchangeable, the gifts of a mild strain of congenital Marfan’s disorder. It accounted for his being a once-in-a-generation physical specimen, too damn soft to be six-foot-three and over two bills. Tall as the devil, they said. At thirteen. Wingspan of a rare stork. Hands fat as chuck steaks. He should have been ruining worlds, not having his own destroyed by a pint-sized Indian in a second-hand Raiders jacket.

But it was Bryan’s face that sparked most of his troubles. His eyes were set back and sleepy. His nose was a misshapen gourd. When he smiled, his thin lips stretched across his square jaw, his teeth zigged and zagged, a mouth like an overstuffed suitcase that couldn’t be zipped shut. Looking at him made you angry. Bryan’s glistening drive-in movie screen of a forehead throbbed with a lump indistinguishable from three infected pimples.

Next time, Bryan thought, he would pick a softer target.

The truancy officer explained that the other boy, Ira Getchell, was squat and deceptively fast, skull like a trenching shovel. He was from a reservation just west of Lahanton, bussed in every morning with a band of no-good cousins.

Dodge leaned forward. “An Indian? Now that takes some salt. Please say Bryan took his licks with some dignity.”

“Not that he had much choice,” the truancy officer said.

“So, be clear: you broke up the fight in progress?” Dodge asked.

“One boy was progressively beating another one, yes.”

“But Bryan had not quit. He had not properly lost?”

“Properly lost?” the truancy officer said. “Not consciousness, no. I suppose the other one might have eventually worn out his arms. Maybe that was your boy’s strategy.”

Dodge was interested. “Was he crying? Was my son crying?”

“Haven’t seen a tear yet,” the truancy officer said.

At this, Dodge’s posture improved. “That’s something,” he said. “Can’t be showing these wagon-burners a sliver of weakness. Give them an inch, they’ll take an acre.”

“Maybe,” the truancy officer said.

“Still surprised Bryan didn’t run away,” Dodge said.

“Hard to run away with a Paiute perched on your chest.”

The regulars droned in agreement.

“My sense is your boy was the aggressor,” the truancy officer said.

Dodge swelled some more. “Now that’s something, too,” he said. “Bryan’s usually a bystander. A rubbernecker. A goddamn watcher. Here’s him building his own fire and running into it for a change.”

“That’s a charitable view,” the truancy officer said. “Another is that your boy isn’t the fire-building type. And still another is that he was hounding a smaller one and got his comeuppance.”

“Next time, he’ll be meaner,” Dodge said and Bryan thought the same thing.

“I suppose.” The truancy officer cinched up his pants and shuffled toward the door. “I’ll leave you to it then.” He gave Bryan one last look, a conquered man’s rueful glance to another at quitting time. He left the bar without saying goodbye.

Dodge ignored him. He plunged his hands into the steaming sink to fish out some snifters and run them through the wire-bristled glass brushes. “Every day he reminds me more of his mother,” Dodge said to nobody and everybody. Dodge speaking on the subject of his son’s departed mother was rare, but not unheard of, so long as the talk was about how she was and not how she actually died.

“But taking initiative is headway,” he continued. “Hanging in to accept his beating is headway.”

Bryan ignored the way his gut itched whenever his dad brought up his mom. He shuffled to his usual seat at the end the bar. The customers called it the “family barstool.” Like his father’s pointed commentary, it was a feature of the saloon’s anachronistic ambiance. Named for Nevada’s first Native American elected official, the Dewey Sampson evoked a West at odds with the looming 21st Century, its walls adorned a hodgepodge of western ephemera, wanted posters, linotypes of dead buckaroos. Food was served family style. The menu told you the day of the week. Mondays were ox-tail stew. Tuesdays were split-pea soup. Thursdays were beef tongue in a Spanish sauce. Bryan and Dodge waged monthly battles with its forever malfunctioning ventilation system, deepfryers, and bar guns. Bryan swept its massive ballroom, once the largest open gaming floor east of Reno. Yards of wide-plank oak floors. Thirty-foot ceilings with plastered filigree. Square footage that rivaled the hangars for small aircraft, the ideal venue for wedding receptions, wakes, and square-dance tournaments.

The customers drove in from the cow counties. Pershing. Churchill. Nye. These were thorny folks for whom simplicity was synonymous with virtue, the cagey skinflint tribe raised on foreign wars and John Wayne. And Dodge Bath, Nevada’s foremost talker of shit, delighted them all. Geraldine Ferraro was a power-starved twat monster. The Challenger explosion was proof that our tax dollars should not be blasted up into space. The California State Lottery would ruin Nevada. You hide and watch. Dodge had his own way of putting things. You were a “whipper” if he liked you. His favorite adjective was “son-of-a-bitching.” To do a thing the standard way was to do it like a white person. Let’s eat like white people, he said. Clean the place so it looks like white people live here, he said.

“One way or another, you’ll learn to close a deal or learn to close your mouth,” he said.

“Give the kid a break,” said an older silk-bloused lady. She smoked Eve Light 120 cigarettes, the brand with braided flower illustrations and the “Every Inch a Woman” slogan. She sucked her Manhattan through a slender black cocktail straw. “Paiutes got an axe to grind.”

Sam Chapel sat next to her. He owned Chapel Truck, Trailer and RV. His billboards claimed he was The Motor King of Bliss Valley. He sipped a Meyers Rum and Coke. Dodge liked to remind him that no man should cut his liquor with soda pop. Sam wore what he always wore. Checkered shirt starched stiff. A bolero tie with platinum tips. Black ostrich-skin boots dimpled with quill holes. Like Dodge, Sam was a Vietnam veteran, but he was older, a Marine who served several tours to Dodge’s one tour with the Army. And Sam had pull. Real pull, too. He was a hustler, a gambler, a winner. The kids gossiped that he worked with the mob, that he car-bombed a senator’s favorite nephew in Lake Tahoe.

“The past is the past,” he said. “Why’d this gut-eater so want a piece of Bryan’s hide?”

“No doubt his mouth,” Dodge said. “And it’s not like we can’t see you coming—people love seeing big shits like you get the business.”

“You’re not wrong,” said the silk-bloused lady. Sam Chapel grabbed her close and chuckled. Bryan figured she was another of Sam’s limecats, the name he gave to the horny rich ladies he brought down from Reno and later bragged to the bar about bedding.

The fading afternoon light sunk the Dewey Sampson into its reliable nighttime murk. The television projected a Barney Miller episode. Somebody’s quarter bought Jim Stafford’s “Spiders and Snakes” from the jukebox. The smell of the Friday night special—clam chowder and calf’s liver—mixed with the colognes, the smoke, the brandy floats and coiled lemon rinds. The night was promising to be just like every other night. Bryan’s shift would begin at five. He would bus the tables and wash the dishes. He would emerge from the kitchen just after ten, maybe rest his head on the bar, maybe take some more ribbing from the drunks and his dad. Dodge would then launch into his Greatest Hit, his story of waiting out the Tet Offensive on a landing zone just outside of Hue and losing two of his fingers. The Baths would head for home after Dodge settled the till and checked the pilot lights. The next night would be the same. Then the night after that. That weekend, he would clean the walk-in freezer. On Monday, Bryan would return to school. More ragging. Then the next week. Then the next year. Then high school. Then he would assume his father’s place behind the bar, re-tell the jokes, reenact the Greatest Hit, browbeat his own children as they sat at the family barstool, waiting to drag their own mops from one end of this old-west cathedral to the other.

What was Bryan thinking picking that fight with Ira Getchell? Ira was a nice kid. He and Bryan were friends, even if Ira had turned on him and razzed him in social studies that day. But if anyone could take it, it was Bryan. He was never fluent in the language of instigation, hardly as natural a pop-off as his father. Wanna go? Wanna raise up? That wasn’t Bryan. Bryan was big and silly, a mascot. That was it, wasn’t it? To change the perception? To shift the laughter from their terms to his? Yes, I disrupt classes. Yes, I spend my fifth periods outside our class, feet together on a sheet of paper, the tip of my nose aimed into that tiny circle Mr. Charleston draws on the wall with a pencil. But you are done mocking me. Next time, you will fear me.

And maybe there was some fear to be won had he tapped into his destructive potential. But Bryan was too careful, like he thought Ira was his puppy to taunt. When Ira thumped Bryan’s sternum, his impulse was to swing his knee into Ira’s groin. The crowd booed and laughed. Ira kept going, waded in, pureed Bryan’s kidneys, broke his nose. The truancy officer emerged from a wine-colored Crown Vic in the parking lot and chased off the onlookers.

Ira kept the boys out of jail, too. He swore that his mom would beat him if he wound up in juvenile hall, maybe even kick him out of his house. The truancy officer believed him.

Bryan also said that he would be kicked out of his house.

The truancy officer laughed. “Dodge Bath ain’t kicking you nowhere except square in the backside,” he said.

Next time, he would maintain his right to remain silent.

The jukebox clicked over to Julio Iglesias’s cover of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” The song combined Dodge Bath’s two great loves: Julio Iglesias and Elvis Presley. Julio’s tongue was honeyed, even when it issued the Mexican words Dodge couldn’t understand. Julio Iglesias. Bill Cosby. Charo. Such were the multicultural precincts of Bryan’s father’s appreciation of the arts.

“Julio!” Sam Chapel said. And Dodge answered, “Julio!” And some other customers echoed, “Julio!” Sam Chapel then grabbed the old silk-bloused lady. They assumed poses like the featured dancers on Lawrence Welk.

Wise man says

Only fools rush in

Sam and his date stepped back, then to the left, then toward the bar again. Soon they waltzed close enough for Bryan to hear their feet shuffling across the floor. “Between you and me,” Sam said to Bryan, “I’ve never trusted somebody who’s never taken a good whipping.” Sam dipped the woman out of rhythm. “Beatings were once essential. Like broccoli.” Chapel liked to hold forth about history. Much of Bliss Valley—Bryan included—regarded Sam as a wise village elder made all the wiser because he learned it all on his own. “I got me a PhD,” he used to say. “A Pershing County High School diploma.”

“And I ain’t talking about mom taking after you with a switch,” he continued as he danced. “When they weren’t flambéing witches at the stake, old-school parish priests would take kids out to the edge of the village on the week leading up to Ascension Day. Some called this ‘beating the bounds.’ There’d be these stones that marked the village boundaries. The parish priests took the boys to each boundary stone and smashed their heads on them. Here’s south. BOP! Here’s east. BOP! Here’s southeast. BOP! Can you imagine? Some of those kids probably came away retards.”

 As a river flows

 Gently to the sea

 Darling, so it goes

 Some things, are meant to be

“What on earth they do that for?” Bryan asked.

“Lots of reasons,” Sam answered. “Ceremony. The kids got bopped and the adults prayed on it, I reckon. But on a practical level, after getting your noggin smashed on the bounds, you know exactly where your home ends and the big bad world begins.”

Sam twirled the lady away from him, twirled her back. He kept staring into her eyes, which Bryan could now see were gloopy with mascara and a virulent blue eyeshadow. Bryan wondered if maybe Sam was wooing him. Men like Sam needed boys like Bryan, the friendless, the motherless, anyone desperate to carve their world into smaller bites. Sam could get a murder of Bliss Valley punks to weed his driveway for little more than a six-pack of Hamms and thirty minutes with his Penthouse collection. It was so easy to make angry boys concede to the hideous visions of tough-talking men. That was how to get pull. Bryan’s conversion to the gospel of the parochial aggrieved began that afternoon. In Sam Chapel’s lousy dancing, Bryan saw a savior.

He would need a rooting section next time. He would need a sympathetic audience.

The front door swung open to welcome John Ibarra and two vacationing prostitutes. From bar gossip, Bryan had gathered that the Ibarra family and Chapel were quarrelling. They agreed on the fundamentals—federal overreach, the encroaching cosmopolitan evils of Las Vegas and Reno, the need for English-only education. But Chapel hated the precedent the Ibarras set when they sold their water rights. They were too chummy with Bureau of Land Management, never missed their grazing dues payment, and Chapel couldn’t abide that degree of concession to the Federal Government.

For his part, Little John didn’t care either way. He was a deviant prick. Sam used to say he was twenty-five with a twenty-six-hour hard-on, that he snorted up money and chased gash like lonely shepherds take after ewes. He took his dates to the long table in front of the slot machines, put himself between them, and lit a cigarette.

“You got about two seconds to get back to the kitchen and get after those dishes,” Dodge said to Bryan. “Finish up with Mr. Chapel. Let’s get moving.”

Sam ignored the party seated behind him on the farthest wall. “Point being,” he continued, “human nature hasn’t evolved past a man needing a beating every so often to know where his limits lie.”

Bryan had learned his limits. No more playing the class clown. Blend in. Shut up. Next time, punch harder. Next time, avoid nut-kicking. Slink through the halls. Keep your fat fingers balled into fists and your fat fists stuffed into your pockets. Next time, hunch when you walk to make yourself seem smaller.

Table settings had eight-ounce hi-ball glasses for wine or water. Little John tapped his glass on the table. He shouted across the dining room, “Service.”

Sam Chapel sat his date on the barstool next to Bryan, where she winked at the boy and lit up another perfumed cigarette.

Sam took the long walk to Little John’s table. He crouched down to eye level. He said, “I don’t know how you sheep-fuckers do things, but this here is a family establishment. Not but Dodge, that kid, and a few folks in the back. Whatever comes, however slow it comes, you do not do that—” and Sam pointed to the empty hi-ball glass.

“What?” Little John took a drag and perched his cigarette in a black ashtray. He knocked his glass on the tabletop again. “That? Got to do something.” He nodded toward Dodge and raised his left hand with two folded fingers. He flopped it at the wrist and gave a spastic jerk, an unimaginative bully’s pantomime of the disabled.

Sam scowled. “That’s a Vietnam veteran. You got no right.”

“I am right sick of Dodge Bath’s bullshit war story.”

“You don’t know anything,” Sam said.

“Reliable source says it ain’t even true.”

“Dodge is the most reliable source there is.”

“Not from what I hear.”

“Let’s wager,” Sam said. “If you can knock me out, I’ll set up a line of credit at the cathouse and you can tell everyone who matters that Dodge Bath’s been pumping this town’s ass full of sand for the past decade. But if I knock you out? You never come back. You never question that man’s service. You slip and I hear of it? I will make it so you question everything about yourself, specifically your fitness to still piss standing up.”

Little John laughed. “You’re out of your depth. And you should mind your own business. Get back to dancing with that old dishrag.” He tapped the glass again.

Sam launched from his crouch over the table and pounced on Little John. The two men flew backwards into the blinking belly of a slot machine. Sam delivered quick blows, his arms a pair of imprecise but vicious pneumatic hammers. He rained punch after punch onto Little John, nothing as elegant or clean as a Sunday western haymaker, a relentless barrage, a flurry of thuds, knuckle slamming into bone, elbow, scapula, neck. When things slowed down, Sam closed his thighs around Little John’s torso, closed one hand around Little John’s neck, and held his face in front of a slot machine’s silver coin basket. Sam slapped him three times with his open hand and spat in his eyes after each slap. He turned to Little John’s dates, wiped the spittle from his mouth. “This is my business,” he said.

He powered his knee up through Little John’s chin. A fat, slow seep of dark blood rolled from Little John’s bottom lip.

The audible pop of the man’s jaw unhinging from his skull was something new to Bryan. He had been hurt and watched other children get hurt. Self-inflicted monkey-bar falls. Failed swing jumps. Mountain-ball sprains. Their bodies were elastic. Pity could be wrung from their bruises and they withstood great pain without changing all that much.

There would be no pity for this particular man. After being carried out of the Dewey Sampson by two off-duty sex workers, Little John Ibarra would be someone quite different.

Then, there was Bryan’s father.

He kept a loaded side-by-side Remington twelve-gauge propped under the margarita blender. Guns were necessary equipment in Bliss Valley. The only home queerer than one without a firearm was the one without a refrigerator, and in Bryan’s imagination, people pulled them on each other all of the time. For trespassing. For carrying on. For voting democrat. But they seldom shot to kill if they shot at all. The Remington was an idle symbol like that.

Dodge leveled both barrels at the two men. He sneered when he nestled the stock into his shoulder and pulled back both hammers. He was composed, molted from a former self fabricated for show. Just the week before, the Baths had replaced the filters on the bar’s swamp cooler and Bryan brought him the wrong screwdriver. You’d think he’d handed him a stick of lit dynamite. Give him shotgun and a pummeled customer? As self-possessed as an Olympian. Before that moment, Bryan believed his father’s malevolence may have been an act. But maybe there was something real to it. Maybe Dodge Bath, the widowed single father Bliss Valley wanted to be its next mayor, could kill a man.

Sam looked around the Dewey Sampson’s first floor. He considered the loaded weapon. The same man he had known for years and was in that instant defending had him squared up like a trophy buck. Sam stepped away from Little John, straightened himself, and walked back across the long dining room to his barstool. The Remington’s barrels followed his every step.

“My apologies.” He gulped the rest of his rum and Coke. The ice rattled when his hands trembled. He hid them under the bar.

Dodge Bath returned to behind the bar. He replaced the Remington. He did not acknowledge Sam’s apology or the bleeding man on his dining room’s floor. He finished shaking a gin martini as though the scene occurred in another time, as though acting like he cared might make that time matter.

The women did their best to reconstruct Little John. They barked about desert trash, about the sheriff, about assault, about lawsuits. All bluster. Even then, Bryan knew the police would never get involved. Cops were for minor nuisances and last resorts. The Ibarras liked to settle matters themselves, creatively. Their verdicts ranged from freak prairie fires to blighted livestock. The women draped Little John over their shoulders and tripped in their skinny heels. One of them flipped the room the finger. The other pitched Little John’s hi-ball tumbler through the glass case that featured the Dewey Sampson’s collectable car decanters.

A perfumed smoke ring floated across Bryan’s line of vision. Sam’s date squeezed his bicep and said, “That’s how you should have treated that Paiute, you know.” She left Bryan’s side to embrace Sam and kiss his ear.

“Start your shift,” Bryan’s father said.

Bryan took the long walk back to the kitchen. He strapped on his apron. He fumed the rest of the night as he collected the glassware and sprayed the bloated bread chunks off dinner plates. He regretted bullying the little Indian boy, of course. He regretted losing. He regretted keeping quiet when Sam’s old limecat told him how he should have fought.

But most of all, Bryan regretted who he was. Meek and ridiculous, a mark. Tall as the devil but afraid of his father with the Remington. Next time, he would not tremble, he would not blink. Next time, his malice would be real, his appetite for shame, boundless.


About the Author

Justin Thurman teaches writing at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His fiction and essays have appeared in Cimarron Review, The Collagist, and The Masters Review, among others. 


Photo "Day 29: Knockout" by Mike Nelson