The Full Back was more than two miles from the Pratt farm, but Oliver made the trip on foot as soon as the sun went down. The years had taught him that it was better not to take his truck down the dirt road only to get too drunk to be able to drive it back again. Too many trees, deer, and ditches stood in the way to make the trip safe for him, let alone other drivers. He usually considered himself a responsible driver, if only because he had the good sense to only put himself in danger by trying to get home alone.
He shrugged out of his denim jacket and tossed it on the bar stool next to him. It didn’t take much more than a glance around the room to see that the bar wasn’t doing well. Four customers at the same time who weren’t together generally meant that something fishy was going on, a full moon or holiday where no loved ones were left with whom to celebrate.
Regardless, he smiled at the bartender and asked, “How are things at the Buy Back tonight?”
“Ready to give the drinks away if it means you’ll give me some fucking company.” Liam Edgerton had gone to school with Oliver. Straight after graduation, he had attempted to get himself a tattoo apprenticeship before he had decided that his skills were beyond what any teacher could handle. He’d booked appointments with clients online and made house calls until an angry phone call and some threatening letters informed him that his practice wasn’t exactly safe or legal. Since then he had been pouring drinks, more or less buying back a drink for every one purchased just to keep himself busy. The bar belonged to his uncle, and his position was the one job he probably couldn’t lose.
The prices were low to attract drinkers, but with fewer agricultural and labor jobs to be found, more people were moving–and drinking–elsewhere. Putting a ten dollar bill in front of him would see Oliver through the night, even if he insisted that he couldn’t afford more than what that money would get him. “Here, I’ll be your first and last paying customer.”
“How about I buy yours and you just buy this one for me?” Liam ducked down to the fridge to pull out two Yuenglings. Before his friend could confirm, he uncapped the bottles and tapped the chilled necks together. “Haven’t seen you drinking your sorrows down here for a while. Are you going to kick around with some small talk, or are you actually going to tell me what’s going on flat out?”
Oliver sighed and traced a pattern into the condensation on the bottle. The whole reason he’d made the trip down the road to this place was to forget about what was happening at all. If he could have bought a six pack and downed it casually in front of the television, he would have, but with his father and sister in the same house, it would only lead to a fight. They didn’t need any more tension trapped within those walls. “How are you?” he said instead.
“Man, you know how I am. Look around you. People are hurting, so business is hurting. In the meantime, I’m so bored that I can feel it in my balls.” His arm moved, but Oliver considered himself lucky that he was sitting and couldn’t see through the bar to make out what rude gesture Liam was making. “You know Ernie won the lotto a few years ago, so he thought that getting into business would be a way to keep the money rolling in. Hell, if we didn’t sell the smokes, I don’t know how we’d stay open.” By buying cartons of cigarettes and then selling them by the pack at a premium behind the bar, they had managed to extract more money out of patrons who liked some nicotine with their buzz than they did from the actual alcohol sales.
“I wish I could help you out, man. Other than buying beer, I’m not much help. It’s not like I can make everyone suddenly realize that they ought to be drinking all day long.”
“Well, what kind of friend are you if you can’t even manage a simple thing like that?” Despite the bar’s trouble, Liam was a contented man. As long as he could drink when he wanted to, nab a bit of weed when he could afford it, sketch out a new tattoo that he thought looked better than his last, and have the television tuned to whatever sport struck his fancy that night, he felt he lived a pretty good life. He’d never expected to get far from town or to make something mindblowing for himself. Instead, he just wanted to enjoy what he had for as long as he could.
“A farmer with no farm.” The words felt bitter on Oliver’s tongue, but they were all true. They still had the property, yes, but with nobody to help with the crops, they’d been forced to reduce their output to what the family themselves could handle. It was enough for them to get by on, with the best produce set aside to sell at a farmer’s market along the nearest stretch of highway, but it wouldn’t keep them afloat for long. With the chickens gone, they had no eggs. Without the cows, they had to buy milk. Expenses they’d never considered before had added up at a hysterical rate, and they’d emerged from their bubble to find that the cost of food was only getting more expensive even though their profits did not follow the same trend.
“Could be worse.”
“A pilot with no plane,” Liam said. His laughter was dry, husky until he took a long pull from his bottle of beer.
“Yeah, well, I don’t think a plane’s just going to disappear.”
“Anything can disappear, man. That’s just the world we’re living in now. Nothing is safe. I don’t give a shit about those corporate shitheads at the bank who don’t want to loan money out but still want to take it away. Things are changing. People are pissed off. It’s all going to come crashing down, and when that happens, it’s the little people like you and me who are finally going to get rewarded for the shit we go through.”
Oliver took a drink of his lager and tried to process his friend’s speech. “Wait a minute. You don’t even care about politics.”
“No, but whenever people walk in here, all people want to do is bitch about the economy. I can pick up on enough to know how to talk the talk when I need to.” As though to demonstrate how suave he was, Liam a hand over his head, shaven bald to disguise the true limits of his hairline.
“That’s all well and good, but I’m still in deep shit. Unless you can use your little rallying cry to get the banks to cut us a bit of slack, we’re going to have to move. I’ve been trying to convince Lily to get a real job to pull her weight, but she’s so worried about Dad and his health all the time that she just wants to stay at home and look after her stupid flowers.”
“Didn’t she go off to college at some point? I thought she was going to be a big shot.”
Oliver wasn’t sure why the comment made him laugh, but it was a relief to be able to let these emotions out. His livelihood was so twisted with that of his family that he was rarely afforded the opportunity to escape. Even laughter was contentious. “Maybe twenty years ago she was. She just wanted to know how to help the animals around the farm. Now we don’t really have any, but I’m sure there’s a shelter or something where she could volunteer. It would at least get her out in the community.”
“But do you want her hanging out with the community?”
Lily with her hair swept back as she smiled. Lily with her top gaping as she listened to the stranger with fondness. Lily looking ready to hop into that truck and just take off anywhere but home. Lily in the garden, watering her flowers as a man looked at her like something that could be grown or bought or taken upon a whim.
“I don’t care what she does,” he said stubbornly. He knocked his knuckles on the bar to indicate that he wanted another beer, the first having seemingly vanished under his guard. “She’s not even talking to me right now.”
Rather than explain, he decided to go over to the jukebox to check out the selection even though it hadn’t changed in the past decade. Southern rock clashed with ’90s alternative to make an eclectic range featuring as much Third Eye Blind as it did Lynyrd Skynyrd. He couldn’t find anything that would provide an appropriate soundtrack to the distress he felt.
“Wait, why isn’t she talking to you? Aside from the obvious.”
Just discussing it made him feel awkward. He was thirty years old, his sister even older. All his life, he’d thought that he would be on a path to maturity so he could have a career, a wife, a kid, and a mortgage by the time he was twenty-five. Instead he felt as though he’d never really progressed beyond high school, and feeling uncomfortable about how his sister interacted with a man just solidified that feeling. If he felt this badly about not getting his life together, he could only imagine what she was going through. Of course she had to want something else more than to be trapped in that dank house forever.
Bruce Springsteen. If there was one thing that could distract his friend, it was the Boss himself and his raspy, urgent voice. “Born to Run,” maybe that was an appropriate track after all. He fed the machine his quarters and watched the disc fall into place.
“Dude, I know you are not trying to ice me out right now. You’re going to make Clarence roll in his grave by using his solo for evil. Now tell me what the hell is going on with you, or I swear I’m going to make you pay for your beer.”
It wasn’t a substantial threat, but it was all Liam had to offer. Even though he was reasonably buff with a bald head and tattoos covering his arms, he wasn’t a violent or even scary man. He had a way of making people relax without being obnoxiously cheerful or irritating. You just wanted to talk to him. In another life, he would have made a brilliant bartender in a big city in another life, if only he could actually make money.
Oliver crept back to his seat and tried to keep his mouth shut, but he knew why he’d gone to the bar in the first place. Drinking was an outlet for him, but more than that, he needed the company. He didn’t want to simply vent and bore his friend, but if he could be invited to spill his guts, well, then who could blame him for letting it all out?
“I want out,” he said as he accepted his second beer, just to have something to put his hands around. The plans all sounded surreal to him because there was nothing solid in his future. Even if he got what he wanted, he wasn’t sure where that would lead. He just had to embrace the possibility because not changing would mean death. “I never wanted to move back home. I don’t know anything about running a farm. We’re bleeding out so much money, money we don’t even have, and Dad just won’t listen to reason. It’s his age or the medicine or something. He just forgets the kind of world we’re in now. You can order organic groceries online now, for God’s sake. We can’t compete.”
“Well, nobody said you had to be a farmer. Hell, man, you’re not even tan.”
The observation made him laugh. “We’re trying to sell off the house and the land. That should square things away, most of them anyway. I could move into an apartment. Lily could do our own thing.”
“And your dad?”
The look Oliver gave him was withering, as though he had aged ten years at the thought of where to go from there. “He’s been fighting a long time. There has to be someone else to take care of him. Maybe one of his sisters. Maybe a home.” He tried not to grimace, which made his lips twist in a strange sort of smile.”I hate being selfish about this, but I haven’t lived my life in a long time. I don’t get to meet people or hang out with my friends. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I got laid. I feel like I’m going to turn around and be going through a midlife crisis because I did nothing for twenty years but babysit someone else’s dreams.”
Liam nodded, but it was clear he didn’t understand. He wanted for nothing because he could make do on nothing. His relatives were the kind looking out for him rather than the opposite. “Is it a good time to sell? I mean, I don’t know what’s going on in the news, man, but it doesn’t seem great.”
“Well, there’s this guy.” He closed his eyes in order to picture Martin. Hadn’t he looked kind when he’d shown up at their door? Sure, he wore a button-down white shirt and a pair of black slacks held up by suspenders, but at least he didn’t bother with a blazer or full suit. He wasn’t entirely genuine, but what politician was? And even if Oliver couldn’t see himself getting along with the man, he didn’t have to. All he had to do was convince him that the property was worth the price, take the money, and then never look back. But could he?
He cleared his throat and started again. “There’s this guy on city counsel who heard about what’s going on. He came by to see the place the other day, totally unexpected. Only the thing is, while he’s there, all he seems to want to check out is my sister.”
Social skills were not Liam’s forte, and he had already helped himself to a couple of beers for liquid company before Oliver had popped in the door. He could see the distress in Oliver’s slate eyes, but the laughter leaked out regardless. The more he tried to compose himself, the more he had to bend over and let it out. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry,” he said through tears. He had to speak to the cherry wood bar to avoid eye contact. “I’m not trying to insult your sister or anything. But her?”
“Who is it then? Some dude looking for his next mistress? I know your sister’s even more of a shut in than you are, but I don’t think it’d be a good idea for her to renew her belief in love to be the other woman.”
The teasing grated his nerves as much as it had in school, but Oliver tried to ignore it by flexing his spine and squeezing his bottle of beer just a bit more tightly. “No, he’s old. Like could be retired by now old. I don’t know what he wants with her, but the weirdest thing is the way she looked back at him. It was like they were flirting, but I didn’t think Lily even knew how to flirt. It was creepy to watch. So I told her that something was up with Dad and he’d have to come some other time.”
“What happened to your dad?”
“Nothing. Well, he doesn’t want to sell, doesn’t he? He still thinks we can fix things. Well, that he can fix them. He told me to get rid of the guy, but he’s our best hope.”
“Maybe he’ll marry your sister and give you guys a huge dowry.”
“Shut up. That’s not how a dowry works.” He remembered the way Martin had assumed that Lily was his wife and his interest when he’d batted that possibility away. Could there be something more behind the scenes? “I thought he was a little creepy. He should have been checking the whole place out, at least seeing how big the property is. Instead he was just showing Lily is big old truck.”
“I hope that’s not a metaphor.”
“Jesus, I hate you.” Oliver finished his drink and scowled. Two beers wasn’t nearly enough to feel a buzz yet, but at least his tongue was loosened a bit. “She was just leaning there, and I swear to god, she was trying to show off her tits. I think the whole thing’s creepy, but I don’t know what else we can do. The guy’s loaded. He can make our problems go away. She seemed to like him enough. What am I supposed to do?”
The look Liam gave him was a mixture of hope and pity. “If you think this is your best option to get what you want, then you just have to take the bull by the horns and go for it. However, if your old man doesn’t go along with it and hears that you’re trying to stick him in a home or pass him off like a football, he’s going to be pissed off. Plus if he’s the only one who has the deed, you might have to do something about getting it into your name first. Something to think about.”
“He’ll sign it over. He has to. We don’t have any other choice.”
“I don’t know, man. Stay in his own house, not get kicked out by his kids, cling to his shotgun and shoot anyone who tries to open the door and drag him out?” Before his friend could complain, Liam was on the case, pouring a shot of bourbon as a peace offering. “You can’t just go making those kinds of decisions for everyone. And you need to figure out what the hell you want first. If you sell your house, where are you going to go? You can’t just wait to see how much money you have and what you can afford from that. You have to get your shit together.”
The whiskey burned on the way down. It always did, no matter which kind Liam picked. Oliver was certain that it was a punishment of sorts for coming here. “I can’t figure everything out. I’m the only one trying here, and it’s hard enough to try to fix my own stupid life.”
“Well, friend, then I’d suggest you take tonight to look back on how things got so out of control. You have to figure out when you have to fight and when you should just walk away and let nature take its course. Money’s just controlling your life right now. It’s not a good look.”
“Oh, really? In that case, I could just take my money back.”
“Get the fuck out of my bar, buddy.”