Hunt by Megan Ayers

To start, Cub’s ain’t so much a bar as it is a babysitter. Youngish ones and their too loud mouths; girls and that barely-there look, all sweating to the juke box, one arm slung over the top of the smudged glass as they lean up against the chrome, hot-like, like they’re ready to lay down. Their boys, stupid hoofing and snorting all around them like hogs after slop. And me and Grange just sit on our stools, hunched over sweating glasses of foam, mostly, trading quick stories about the times before, about the people in Cub’s and their families we knew from Sundays after church, days at the high school.

Wasn’t too long ago that me and Grange were lined up, rocketing our heads and shoulders into Eastfork’s ugly offense, toe-to-toe sweating next to each other, pushing them back and back. And afterward, past the screaming fans and the shrill cheers, me and Grange together, him bigger, older than me by a year but still in my class, mean-skinned and quiet, we’d go off, steal some of daddy’s beers from the busted up fridge in the garage, go out to the quarry and drink and howl and throw shit. Now, just a couple years removed from these kids we don’t know from Adam, except maybe their older brothers we played against in high school, their older sisters we’d share between us till Grange got sick of me crowding his turf, would chase me off with a look and a growl, his heavy fist against the back of my skull while I was making time with some girl too drunk to care who I was or where I was going. But these girls here, I tell you, enough to make a man hate his life not to have them. That way. They roam in packs. And girls they are, not women. Not flattened women with wide bottoms and frizzed hair, skin cracked and bruised from putting up. No, these ones are girls. Soft creatures that could curl around you, hook their legs to your ears and just wiggle. They do that. Wiggle. Hard to hold down. They slip right out of your arms and into the night.

Me and Grange had started early and by the time we took our spot at Cub’s the stars had fallen wild around us. We knew something was up by the people milling around Cub’s dirt lot, boys hollering after their girls, mad drunk crying out the names they needed. And we didn’t care, the stupid fucks. They’d learn when they got a bit older. They’d learn that they’d just pissed it away like boys do, spit and blood and punching stupidity. But we hadn’t given up, me and Grange, we knew it was our night, only just eleven and already those idiot jackals leaving their women crying in rusted-out truck beds. We elbowed each other knowing.

Inside Cub’s was yellow and smoky and dark. Bodies sweated up against each other, old boys braying at jokes they’d told a hundred times, pool balls clinking hard, a line at the long bar three deep, and the girls, my God, they were all over, arms around each other, leaning drunk with pouts and grins, the neon red and blue in their heavy glassy eyes searching out men, lingering here or there, acting bored with their present company, practically begging that kind of attention with their willowy limbs, arched backs, bare shoulders daring.

I saw one seek my eye, one in a pink number with brown hair, sleepy eyes, and summer skin. She looked at me for too long and then nodded, her arms crossed in front of her as she leaned against the juke box. She turned her back to me and bent to the glass, searching for her part of the night. I knew her from around, Grange had thumbed her out to me a few weeks prior, talked to her a bit, but I didn’t know what came of it.

I elbowed Grange and he waved me off. He was focused on the game overhead, ordering another while I pushed off the stool and split through the crowd to my summer girl. I creeped up on her, saw her back beaded with sweat and wanted to run my mouth across it, her soft arms, round calves, plump thighs, and I saw us together: her in my lap, leaning in, face to face with her eyes closed, whimpering and wet. From the angle of her face, watching me like a doe, I could see that she saw me coming up behind her, knew me from the way she waited too long to turn around. And then it came up, that song I can only hum, and she turned into me, looking up, her lips wet, eyes wanting, and she took a step to me, hooked her smooth arms around my neck and began to sway. Damn that girl. She closed her eyes and leaned into me. I could smell her, her hair and sweat, and I could feel her heat, small and concentrated like a baby rabbit’s rapid heart pressed flat against tall grass, waiting invisible to be swooped up by a hawk.

I took her waist in my hands and pulled her to me, bending to her ear to whisper hello.

I could tell she was three sheets gone, but hell, I didn’t care. Wasn’t too presentable myself, and I started to guide my sleepy summer girl asway through the crowd to my truck where she and I could recline without being crowded.

She lifted her face to me as I eased her through the throng and murmured, “Now?” and I kissed her neck, a salty tang like melon and blood, until we breathed the cool of the night’s blanket of dark outside of Cub’s dirt lot empty of stragglers, a chorus of tree frogs welcoming us together.

I guided her to my truck where I opened the rusty door and kissed her mouth in the dome light. Lifting her up onto the seat, she was light and ready and slow with sleep and beer, and I knew just then: this quick sweetness before me would take me and go. But here she was, this soft, sleepy summer girl was in my truck, laid out across the seat with her legs apart, and she was murmuring an invitation, asking me to keep her warm, doing this little squirm like she was going to try to get out of her jean shorts. What could I do but oblige? So I leaned over on top of her and touched her face and kissed her neck and chest, and I made my way down to start to fumble with her clothes when I heard a rustling behind, a ragged breath that inspired a quickness in me. Whipping around, my face met a glancing fist. Grange, the bastard’d gone mean, cock-eyed. I was lucky for it, his being the hardest fist I’d known these years. My head disconnected from my neck for just a second and hit the frame of the door, the thud rousing my summer girl to scream, “Grange no!” and then I was gone, sinking with woozy grace to my knees, vision blurring.

He pushed me out of the way and grabbed the girl from my truck, hoisting her over his shoulder like some fiery cave-man out to grab his share. He looked me in the face and I mustered to spit blood on his shoe, garbled, “What the fuck, man?” because friends don’t do that to friends, and he bore past me out the parking lot with my summer girl on his shoulder, lurching into the hot night like he’d got somewhere to go. With the frogs twilling in my ears I tried to staggered after them, blood stinging my eyes, Grange’s fist making the world dark and far away. I coughed and hollered after them, confused and tired and tipsy, too. I lunged at Grange’s back, summer girl’s kicking legs. I tripped over my own fool feet and faced into the dusty lot. There wasn’t much will left, so I let them go, and the night darkened around me.

The shadow of Grange’s back disappeared, and my summer girl’d dropped one tiny pink flip-flop in the dirt of Cub’s. It was up-ended and I crawled to and fingered it. The dirty depression of her foot was embedded in the pink foam, and I made out the shape of her little ordered toes. I brought it to my face and smelled the ghost of her foot, wished she was mine. I imagined her naked right foot dangling behind Grange, brown dirt on the edges, but the sole pink and cool and clean. I thought about the way her brown eyes took me in, all. Even in her sleepy way, she knew me. But I gave up on it, hands and knees back to my truck where the passenger door was hanging open, the dome light gathering the attention of feathery night moths and the crunchy tink of June bugs. I cursed and spat and wiped the blood from my face, hazarded to my feet and fished for my keys. I stood there, fighting against the earth’s sway pulling me to the ground, admiring the nocturnal songs, the sweet air drifting my hair, drying the blood that was caking hard to my face. Murky laughter from Cub’s drifted out the open windows and was lost in the night, over green fields and into the dense, weedy wood. I shifted from one foot to the other, and sat down in the dirt to ruminate. Some minutes passed. A couple laughed their way out of Cub’s and pointed me out in whispers. They called after me and I waved them off. I scratched my head. I made a circle in the dirt and drew a line through it. I drew another and another, little deer tracks circling around my place leaned against the truck, defeated. I thought on Mamma and Daddy. Tried to conjure their faces. I brought to mind sitting around the table when Daddy and me had bagged a doe that first fall after I had left home. We’d watched and waited all day, nothing, stillness the bond between us, the earth under us, and at last she had stepped into the clearing like a dancer, delicate and well-formed. It was my shot to take, Daddy offering it up to me, and I trained my sights on her. She stood in the dusk, the golden grass just under her belly as the sun slanted flat across the open field. She just stood and stood, wanting us to admire her, pausing for us to savor. I took her then, there. She fell for me and waited until I was upon her to close her eyes in death, sharing. Daddy left to ready the car and I cleaned her on my own, opened her up, felt her life heat against my naked skin. She was spilled in the field and I had done it. The drive home was silent, miles. At dinner, Daddy smiled at me, then, the venison wafting all over the house, jokes about having too much for once, Mamma beaming across. It was all mine to take.

I  righted myself, slapped the dirt away with the decision to hazard a drive. I looked up at the clear night, the host of stars and galaxies bearing down on top of me, almost lost my balance in the bigness of it all when a cop cruiser rumbled into the dirt lot of Cub’s, parked, lights flashing, and I froze with my key in the door.

There wasn’t nothing I was doing wrong at that point aside from bleeding alone, but I knew I looked like hell. With my back to the cop, I could feel he was eyeballing my stillness from behind his bulletproof window. Still, I had my head down and I was frozen. Nothing sudden, hunched trying hard to be invisible.

Behind me, two car doors opened and closed, he called my name. I waited. Heavy feet made way across the gravel and dirt to where I was holding my breath. One of them cleared their throats, called after me again and I turned slow, blinded by the flashing red and blue. Beyond the halo of light I saw Grange in the backseat looking glum and put out. He scowled and flipped me a salute to tell me we weren’t on no speaking terms as of yet.

One of the officers ranged into my space and hitched up his jangling leather belt. He was a couple years ahead me in school, played JV then quit. He thumbed behind him, “Know that guy?”

I stepped to the side and put a hand up to my face to shield my night eyes of the glare, nodded, playing the game that he wanted me to play: we both knew Grange, who didn’t?

“Been drinking?”

I chanced a smile to prepare my compromise when the other officer, shadowed by the strobing lights, called out after tinny static wafted out the cruiser window. Another call. The officer in front of me, Tim Dunk I think his name was, rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at the pink flip-flop I still was holding in my hand.

“Bet I know who that belongs to,” he said, and I handed it over with a cough, rubbed my arm against my face to keep the sweat and blood out of my eyes.

The officer at the cruiser called after him again, and he turned from me and pitched his head at Grange. The one I couldn’t see opened the door for Grange and he leaned out to tumble into the dirt.

“You boys take it easy, now. Go home,” the shadowed one said. His partner tipped his hat at me with a sigh. He turned his back on me and the two left with their lights still whirling, Grange still plopped in the dirt, hunched over and breathing hard.

Knowing Grange like I do, having many a night where one of us is swinging for some unknown and forgotten reason, I approached him tense. His head hung to his chest and his breath came in gasps and coughs. His brown hair was dusted with lot dirt, and there was blood on his jeans. I stopped short, out of arm’s reach, watched and waited. Grange moved his hands in circles in the dirt, picked up clumps and crumbled them between his paws. He scratched his head. I kicked some dirt at him to his attention and he looked up at me, his dirty face smeared with blood and sweat, three long scabbing red lines extending from his left eye to his chin. She’d raked him good.

He looked down at the dirt again and wiped his nose across the length of his forearm, coughed and shook his head.

“They’re all alike,” he said, “Every last one of them.”

I took his too proud hand and hefted him to unsteady feet, wrapped an arm around his shoulder and we swayed back into Cub’s determined to fight back that’d did us in.

The bartender saw us stagger in bloody and spent, rang a bell above the bar and shouted out, “To the losers!” The bar tuned their glasses to us and upended, pawing at our backs and hooting in our defeat. It happened mostly to others we knew, but like I said before, tonight was ours, and me and Grange basked in the friendly glory of a nights’ ribbing. Wasn’t no harm in it.

We shouldered our way to the bar where cool glasses waited for us on the house, and we knew they’d keep coming. Casualties always pay.

—–

Megan Ayers has been published in journals like Bluestem Magazine, EDGE, The Emprise Review, and Moon Milk Review. Her work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. She teaches writing in Cincinnati, OH where she lives with her husband and two dogs.

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