Two associates meet in a bar to execute their latest business plan.
The ice in his glass clinked and thumped when Jack placed it on its coaster. A golden beam of light was caught and swimming around in it, and he let his fingers trace a path through the beads of water condensed on its outside. Then, he wiped his hands on the counter and looked at them, studying the alcohol-reflected sun in the cracks of his palms. They were rough, but Jack thought that they’d continue to gain scars for as long as he lived. He turned them over and flicked the rim of his drink. The sound it made was muted and unsatisfying, but he let it echo in his head, and sighed. There he was, alone in a bar, staring at midday’s tricks in a glass of beer.
It wasn’t a pretty one, either. Wind-swept dust covered most of the room’s surfaces, illuminated by shafts of yellow light from the slanted ceiling’s rotten holes. A few unarmed men were mulling around disparately, inebriated and sullen. There was a staircase leading to a loft of bedrooms, and the whores that undoubtedly slept between their bug-infested covers were clustered around a table placed strategically close to the entrance. The glasses were spotted and chipped, and the rooms’ doors hung crookedly from their hinges. Everything -the roof, the decrepit billiards table, the bar itself- was crooked. The patrons didn’t seem to be particularly friendly, either, and (aside from the occasional cough) were starkly silent.
He looked up. Above his head, a warped wooden clock was bolted into an equally warped wooden rafter, neighbored by an ashamed-looking bull’s skull and an old pair of horseshoes. It was 1:30.
His client was an hour late.
He shook his boot against the rusted metal rungs of the barstool, and a twangy, unattended player piano punched along nasally over the saloon’s silent patrons. A few glasses tapped together as the bartender poured another beer. Behind him, an old man spat, and Jack wrinkled his face in disgust. He himself was quietly hunched over, dark poncho, leather holster, and snubbed hat giving him an almost Transylvanian shadow. In the bar’s dry, choking air, he stood out.
His situation was impossible, he realized, and grunted. He was nervous. The bartender, in his yellowed vest and suspenders, shot him a downward look.
After all the hell that Jack had paid for this man, he could tell that today was going to be another no-show. Alexander was not, and had never been, a punctual business partner. He showed up, though. That, Jack supposed, was enough.
He shifted his weight and slowly rolled his knuckles along the counter. There were some people, he thought, whose cons and plans would lasso you and pull you all over the unforgiving Southwest, and just when you thought you were about ready to disappear you realized that you were just as tangled up in the whole act as you had been from the very beginning. Alexander, he decided long ago, was one of these people, and Jack was undeniably tangled.
The man wasn’t unpleasant, though. Alex left the broader schemes to bandits and kept himself just enough work to keep eating. He was a dreamer, and a roamer. There was something inside his belly…a spark, flickering and twisting in spasms, that wouldn’t allow complacency, settlement, or honest work. He wasn’t a coward. He was just aloof and starry-eyed; an innocent outlaw.
At least, that’s what Jack kept telling himself.
He admitted that his own line of work was just as shady, if not a little rougher. The cracks on his hands and the scars above his brow could attest to that; they were the marks of an errand-boy, an odd-job-seeker, and most importantly, an opportunist. He was ashamed that something deep inside him, way down in the back of his brain, was just as restless as Alex, and that he couldn’t bring himself to be a rancher or a merchant or a sad-eyed saloon-owner. Jack could see that he and Alex were alike, and that the thing at the bottom of his brain knew exactly why he was sitting there, taking another job. Aside from the money, Jack himself didn’t know, but he knew that the thing needed Alex. Hell, he probably needed Alex, too.
Jack sighed, and the bartender took it as a cue to refill his drink. He nodded appreciatively, and slipped another bill forward. The bartender nodded back, and took the bill in his hand, smiling delightfully. Someone here was friendly, Jack thought. The alcohol, stale and dusty like the rest of the bar, was surprisingly refreshing. He swirled the ice around and looked down into it. A yellowed reflection, gaunt and cloaked in stubble, revealed nothing. He drank it away, and looked back up.
“What’s your name, friend?”
The bartender turned around. He was a handsome, well-built boy of about twenty-one, with innocent blue eyes and messy golden hair. His expression betrayed his composure he was mildly surprised that anyone had spoken at all. He was born in this dump, Jack concluded.
Jack nodded. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sam.”
The boy stuck out his hand eagerly, and Jack leaned forward to shake it. His skin felt smooth and unmarred.
Sam grinned widely, and stopped to take in Jack’s gruff appearance.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Jack”, he said after a pause, and turned to place the money in his register. Seeing that Jack’s glass had been emptied once again, he gracefully refilled it. When Jack shifted to pull out another bill, Sam reached forward, placing a hand on his arm to stop him. “Don’t bother, friend. It’s on me.”
Jack eyed him questioningly, and then returned to his previous position, understanding. Sam moved his hand to his side, stepped back rigidly, and caught Jack’s glance. For a second, the two stared at each other. Then, Jack felt his mind flutter, and turned away, allowing the sun to catch the brim of his hat and darken his eyes. He thanked the boy, who managed a shaky, “don’t mention it,” in reply. This bar might not be as pitiful as he thought, after all. He looked up.
Time was crawling. Some dust particles danced around the light in front of him, and he blew them away wearily. He was shaking his whole leg now, and he could feel serpentine anxiety coiling up in the bottom of his stomach. He was sure that he wasn’t ready for another encounter with Alex, and he gazed at the bartender’s naïve hands as he continued to sip away his beer. There wasn't really any reason to be ashamed of his lifestyle, Jack supposed. He worked as hard as anyone else. He deserved the money he made.
He took another sip from his drink.
When it had been drained to its foamy halfway point, a dark figure moved onto the stool beside him.
Jack froze. The man was slim and clean-shaven, and dressed in a similar poncho. He had a cowboy hat on, and Jack could see the formidable outline of a shotgun slung over his back. His stool creaked underneath him, and the bartender placed a second drink on the counter.
“You’ve gained weight, Alex.”
The man chuckled, and turned to reveal his face. Dark hair hung over his eyes and features, which were remarkably youthful. He had shaved his beard, and Jack had never seen his hat before.
“It’s not awfully nice to greet someone like that, Jack,” he said.
Jack scoffed, and felt a pang of anger. “Well, it’s not awfully nice to leave a man waiting for over an hour.”
There was a pause. Alex shifted awkwardly to take a sip from his drink before scrunching up his nose. “I did what I could to get here on time.” His eyes shot down, and he moved closer to Jack, who instantly regretted being so brash. Alex was as depressed as he was.
“How have you been?” He asked. His face looked sorrowful.
“I’ve been living,” Jack replied.
There was a pause.
“I suppose you could call it that.”
Jack gulped down a lump in his throat with another sip of beer. The seconds had seemed like years a week ago, but now it felt as if they had never parted. Suddenly, he saw Alex's eyes start to water, and leaned over to wipe them, touching the man for the first time in months. They stopped to look at one another. He felt his heart leap, becoming aware of how much Alex lit up the old barroom. He could feel their presence, and sense just how sorely they had missed each other.
“Miss me?” he asked.
“Nah,” Alex said, chuckling through a sob, and reaching up to wipe his own eyes. “Not at all.”
They spent another second smiling, and Alex shifted a bit. He furrowed his brow, looked up at the clock, and frowned. “Maybe we should…”
“Yeah,” Jack interrupted. “We should.”
With a nod, Alex stood a little, shook, and Jack reached out to grab his arm. They stood together, and Alex turned to him. He could feel the suspicious eyes of the people around them.
“Do you ever get tired of doing all this?” asked Alex.
Jack had been momentarily dazed by Alex’s entrance, but now he realized how public the conversation had been. “Nah,” he replied. “Not at all.”
Alex looked around nervously. He was a few inches shorter than Jack, and now, unfurled and straight-backed, Jack could see that his insult was not only cruel, but wholly incorrect. Alex looked unhealthily skinny.
The bartender started a sentence, but Jack shooed him away with a hand gesture. He looked up again.
Then, in one swift motion, Alex leaned forward and kissed him firmly on the lips.
The table of prostitutes gasped excitedly, and the men scattered around the room let out drunken cries of revulsion. Sam inhaled and dropped a bottle, which shattered to reflect green on the surfaces around them. A woman screamed. The doors squeaked crookedly in their hinges.
As he took out a bandana and started wrapping his face, Alex winked. He tied it calmly, and, in an instant, jumped forward and scrambled on top of a table. He dropped his poncho and swung the shotgun into his arms while Jack vaulted over the counter, knocking more glasses to the floor and un-holstering his own. He pressed it to the bartender’s head, and Alex began to shout out orders.
“Everybody put your fucking hands up! Put your fucking hands up! This saloon is being robbed!”
The room erupted with movement, and the whores’ shrieking intensified. Jack grabbed hold of Sam, and quietly instructed him, blubbering and begging for his life, to empty the register into his satchel.
“Now I want every single person here to remain calm and put their wallet on the tables in front of them!” Alex waved his gun, pointing it at the group of women. “You see this?
The women screamed.
"This is a shotgun!"
He wiped his face again, and his eyes darted around the room.
"If anyone pulls anything funny I’ll stain the walls of this shitty barroom with pieces of his brain!”
Alex continued to yell. Once the register’s disappointing fortune was emptied, Jack smashed a bottle on Sam’s head, sending him to the ground unconscious and bleeding. He then began to move around the room, floorboards groaning underneath him. Starting with the old man, Jack went from table to table, taking money from each patron. Alex continued to bark and command above.
Each person was submissive and compliant. There were never any gunslingers, Jack remembered, and wallets started to fill up his bag. There were only drunken saps.
As he reached the table near the entrance, the town’s sheriff (as poorly equipped as its bar) rushed in, firing blindly. Jack rolled his eyes and squeezed his shotgun’s trigger, spraying red onto the stairs and the women, whose screaming jumped to an ear-splitting level.
“Shut the hell up!”
Jack shook his bag, prompting them to give up their money. They were terrified, and after a few horror-stricken glances, they began to shakily unsheathe their cash and throw it into Jack’s satchel. Once all of it had been collected, Alex jumped down from his perch and strode over to Jack.
“I don’t think I could give this up for the world,” he said, keeping a watchful eye on the people around them.
Jack smiled, dizzied with love and adrenaline. He couldn’t give it up either; the job was a part of his life, and every ounce of his being screamed that this is what he should be doing, and that Alex was who he should be doing it with.
He looked up.
This time, Jack initiated the kiss. Then, Alex gave the signal.
The two lovers unloaded their shotguns into the surrounding men and women, dyeing the walls with their blood. The noise of the guns and screaming was deafening as the room exploded into violence, and when they finished, Jack wiped Alex’s face lovingly, this time clearing away streaks of red. He looked around.
Blood ran through piles of broken bone and glass on the floor beneath them. The reflected sun was red; the whole room was painted the color of blood. Bullet-strewn bodies slumped over chairs and in corners, lit sparsely from the building’s increased amount of holes. The billiards table was lacerated, and the decrepit room had resumed its previous state of near-complete silence. Beer soaked into the tabletops. Some dust had been lifted, and now floated in the air around them.
This is why he did it, he realized. This is why he was restless. It wasn’t for the money in the register, or for the wallets. It was for the action.
Jack felt alive.
He turned, and silently slid Alex’s discarded poncho off of the table. His motions were magnified again, and with everyone dead, their breathing seemed to fill up the space around them. They stood for a few seconds, and Jack brushed off his pants. Alex sighed.
Slowly and shakily, disoriented by the blow, Sam stood up from behind the counter. He leaned forward, trembling, and lifted his hands into the air.
Alex raised his gun and closed an eye, amused. Jack raised his hand to push it down.
“No. Just leave him be.”
Alex frowned, paused, and lowered his gun, nodding understandingly. Then, with a final sigh, the two laced hands and turned around.
As they exited, Sam sobbed behind them, and the player piano continued dutifully.