Billy was squatting on top of the toilet lid in the stall at The
El Corazón Disco Lounge, and he was staring at the gun in his shaking hands, the gun he
had bought that afternoon at a pawnshop just outside the Smoky Ordinary town limits. The
fluorescent lights were flickering, casting strange intermittent shadows on the bathroom
ceiling. The graffiti on the stall wall asserted that someone named Mo-Mo sucked his own
cock, to which someone else had remarked that Mo-Mo was a lucky limber bastard. The rhythm
of Billys own heart tingled in his fingertips. Sweat trickled down the center of his
chest. He turned the gun and looked down its barrel, aiming at his own eye. He studied the
dark nothingness there, thought You can do this, you piece of chicken shit. Dont
think. Just do it. The gun had heft, a solid weight in his hands like it belonged
He wasnt afraid to die. He was, however, afraid
of pulling the trigger, the violence of it, the possibility that someone might save him,
that he might become a vegetable or a cripple. He did not like to picture his wife Sarah
and his other wife, his non-legal wife Candy, having to take turns wiping his ass. He
wanted to remove himself from their lives cleanly. He wanted, for once in his life, to be
selfless like his late father, the Reverend Bill Senior. Funnily enough, Billy was just
the sort of man that his father would have tried to rescue, not that Billy deserved it.
Billy adjusted the gun. Right here. Right in the cornea.
Just then, as he was staring down the barrel of the
gun, two guys came in to take a piss. Billy froze, tried to control his erratic breathing.
He listened to them walk over to the urinals and unzip, and to the sound of the piss
hitting the porcelain. Billy tried to concentrate on the death that was waiting for him,
the relief of it. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, tried to keep centered on himself.
As they were zipping up, the two guys began talking. Billy managed to concentrate on his
breathing, to tune them out for the most part, but then one guy made a passing remark
about the other guys sister, something intended to be complimentary, something about
her luscious onion of an ass. Inside the stall, Billy rolled his eyes and mouthed the word
Jesus to himself, because he knew that the one thing a guy should never do is open
his mouth about another guys sister. Even Billy, complete fuck-up that he was when
it came to women, knew that one fact. Because, he thought, the only thing worse than
insinuating you wanted to screw a guys sister was insinuating that you didnt.
You really couldnt win. And that was one thing Billy was an expert onno-win
And then also it wasnt a good idea to talk shit
about someones sister in this place, the El Corazón, because it wasnt a
gentle place, not like the martini bars he went to with the guys from work, not the kind
of place the soft-skinned, suit-wearing guys from Atkinson & Neidermeyer would like.
It was a place where men in fatigues sat at tables by themselves all day and where the
tattooed kids from the housing project always tried to get served underage, sometimes with
success. There were Christmas lights up year round and scores of stuffed and mounted dead
animals on the walls, some of them wearing hats or lingerie, some of them decaying, the
false noses and eyes exposed. It was one of the places that Billys band The Lonesome
Rangers played a lot, which was why he had decided to die here.
It had been hard to find a place to die. One of the
problems with being dispossessed, Billy had realized, was that there was no space that was
just yours, where you had the privacy to jerk off or eat pork rinds off your chest or
shoot yourself. He supposed he could have offed himself at his mothers house, where
he had been staying since hed finally done the right thing and left Candy. Hed
left her after she said that she was having his baby. It was another one of her lies,
another ploy to hold onto him, to keep him from trying to get back into Sarahs good
graces. But he had suddenly realized that Candys lie, the fake baby, was no worse
than his own. After all, he had fake married her, had gone through the sham of a ceremony
but had never filed the papers with the state of Virginiabecause he was of course
already married to Sarah. Maybe he and Candy could have kept trying to outdo each other
until they both went into fake comas or something. It seemed to him that on top of so much
bad behavior, shooting himself at his widowed mothers house would have been too
unkind, too ungrateful.
So he was here in the El Corazón Disco Lounge and
these two guys were now in a heap on the bathroom floor, rabbit punching each other in the
gut and grunting and swearing. Billy sighed and put his head in his hands, resting his
forehead on top of the gun, waiting for them to finish and get out. After a while, there
was the squeak of the door opening again. Whoever it was obviously couldnt get in,
blocked by the two idiots wrestling on the floor, and so just stood there with the door
open. A breeze came in from the hallway, a breeze of malt liquor and cigarette smoke and
jalapeño poppers, and on that breeze was the faintest sound of Veronica Hawksworths
voice. Even though she sang for The Lonesome Rangers, his own band, it was suddenly as if
Billy had never heard her before, or maybe had never listened. She was singing "Stand
By Your Man" on the karaoke machine. Her voice, Billy thought, sounded like honey and
sandpaper, so deep but also unmistakably feminine. How could he have forgotten about
Veronica Hawksworths voicethat there were things so beautiful in the world? He
smiled, his forehead still resting on the gun, and he closed his eyes and traced the
shapes of the notes in his mind. He imagined for a moment that this was all there
wasjust him and that voice. He could see himself floating in a wonderful white
emptiness, intertwined with nothing but the sound. Here, he would never see the terrible
haunting sadness of womens eyesSarahs, Candys, his mothers.
This was how his life could have felt if he had been someone else, someone brave enough to
end things with Candy, or never to have started them, and certainly never to have started
things with those other girls, the lesser onesAmber from Accounts, Molly the
waitress, that police woman from Garstang. Now, in this lovely empty space with the music,
Billy could picture Sarahs face as it was before all of this started, her freckles
and dark hair, her faintly hooked nose, the dimples that appeared whenever she tried not
to laugh. Those intelligent green eyes, the way there seemed to be thoughts swirling
behind them always just beyond his reach. Listening to Veronica Hawksworths voice,
he imagined his life with Sarah as it should have been, as it was meant to be. Simple and
beautiful, a sustained full-bodied note.
The two guys wrestling on the floor became louder
"Oh God," one of them finally yelled,
Billy stood up slowly, his legs cramped and tingling,
and he peered over the top of the stall. As he did, he vaguely noticed the man who was
holding the door open, little and bald, just sort of standing there like he was waiting
for a bus or something. Over by the urinals were the two wrestling guys, one of them now
with a hand over his eye and feeling around on the floor, uttering a steady stream of
obscenities. He was skinny and he wore lace-up boots under his jeans and a pink WMAX
"Hey," Billy said. "Can you guys shut
up? Im trying to hear the music."
Pink T-shirt ignored him, continued crawling around.
"If Ive lost my eye," he said to the other guy, "youre going to
fucking pay for it."
"The fuck I am," said the other guy, who was
lying on his back, panting. Blood trickled from the side of his mouth into his scraggly
goatee. "That fucking eye is creepy as hell. Be glad its gone."
"You take that back!" Pink T-shirt yelled,
turning around. "That is a fucking top quality eye. It came all the way from fucking
France, you big ass."
"The only big ass in this place is your fucking
sisters," the other guy muttered.
Pink T-shirt paused, turned. He took his hand away
from the shriveled eye socket. "You stop thinking about my sisters ass,"
he said. Then, with surprising speed, Pink T-shirt jumped to his feet and kicked goatee
guy in the face before there was time to turn away. Blood splattered the walls and the
outside of the stalls. Goatee guys nose was smeared across his cheek, as if it had
been made of clay. He began to scream in a way that Bill envied, in a way Bill had dreamed
of for the last month. The guy clutched his face with one hand and Pink T-shirts leg
with the other. He pulled up Pink T-shirts pant leg and bit him on the calf, just
above the boot, sinking his teeth into the flesh until blood trickled down. Pink T-shirt
screamed, trying to shake his leg and also trying to rip the empty paper towel dispenser
off the wall so that he could bang the other guy over the head with it.
Angry heat began to rise from the center of
Billys chest, up into his throat. He pinched his eyes shut. "Shut up! Just shut
up!" Billy yelled. He slammed the gun against the stall several times. "I will
fucking shoot you both if I dont hear the end of this song."
Pink T-shirt froze and looked at Billy as if he was
seeing him for the first time, one brown eye alert and nervous, the other little more than
a flap, a deep black void, like the barrel of the gun. "Whoa, dude," he said.
"I will not relax," Billy said, pointing the
gun at him. "Until you shut up."
"Okay, dude," Pink T-shirt said. "Sure,
"Yeah," said the other guy. "We love
"Do you know us? Im Paul," Pink
T-shirt said pointing to himself. "And thats Ernest, a.k.a. Wild Man. Paul and
Wild Man in the Morning? WMAX?"
"We can get you free CDs," said the
guy on the floor hopefully. Blood streamed over his face, covering his teeth too. His
voice was low-pitched and nasal now, like he had a cold.
Billy closed his eyes. "Shut up," he
"Sure, okay," Paul whispered back, and then
he lowered himself next to his friend.
Standing on top of the toilet, the guns barrel
resting on the top of the stall door, Billy tried to concentrate again, this new silence
like water in a boats wake, rippling. He breathed deeply and exhaled, relaxed his
shoulders. He tried to find Veronicas voice, tried to find that whiteness, that
floating feeling. He leaned into the quiet and began to make out the words again.
Just then, the door squeaked shut. Billy opened his
eyes. The little bald guy was gone and so was the breeze from the hallway and so was the
music. With a sigh, Billy turned the gun and pointed it at his own head.
"Whoa, hey," said Wild Man, sitting up,
flinching with obvious pain from his nose. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like?"
"Shes not worth it, whoever she is,"
Billy thought of Sarah, smiled weakly.
"Thats just not true," he said.
"Do you know how many guys have offed themselves
because of my sister?" Paul said.
"Oh, wait, I know," said Wild Man, bringing
his hand to his goatee and then looking up. "Two. Is it two?"
"Thats right, moron. Two," said Paul.
He turned to Billy then. "Why do you think Im trying to keep this genius away
Wild Man turned to Paul with surprise. "Hey,
thats sweet," he said. "Are you really?"
"What are friends for?"
"Its not the same thing. I know what
Im doing," Billy said. He cocked the hammer. "You guys can leave if you
"No. Wait, just wait," Paul said in a
drawn-out way, thinking. "What if we played your band on the radio or something.
Chicks love musicians. Maybe you can get her back. Or maybe you can get another girl, a
really good one."
Billy lowered the gun. "How do you know about my
"What, are you kidding?" said Wild Man,
still sitting on the floor. "We come here all the time. You guys are awesome."
"Do you really think so?" Billy said
smiling. He thought about Veronicas voice, thought if there was one thing in his
life worth sticking around for, maybe that was it. He thought about Sarah again, her face
as it had been in his daydream with the music, contented and peaceful, without the burden
of his mistakes. Maybe somehow the music could take him back to that place for real, a
place where Sarahs eyes werent pained and hollow. Maybe it would help him find
a way. Not that he expected her to love him again. If she just liked him, didnt hate
him. That would be something.
"Weve been talking about it, havent
we, Ernie?" Paul said to Wild Man, who nodded enthusiastically, blood gushing
from his nose. "Tip your head back, man, like this" Paul said, pinching the
bridge of his own nose.
"Yeah, we want to have a local showcase on the
program," Wild Man said, addressing the ceiling in a pinched-nose nasal twang.
"Maybe have you guys, County Seat, Dale & Erv, The Lunch Ladies, people like
that. What do you think?"
"Listen," said Paul, "I need you to do
this. I didnt do so good with those other guys who offed themselves for my sister.
One of them was a good pal. So, be a sport, will you?"
The bathroom door squeaked open a crack then and
Veronica stuck her head into the room. She was wearing that pink headscarf thing like
usual, sort of like a bathing cap, and the color of her round face was uneven under the
fluorescent lights. It made Billy think of the moon or cheese or something. And yet she
was beautiful, those enormous brown eyes that had somehow retained an innocence in spite
of everythingworking in a factory for twenty years, taking care of her sick parents,
dealing with the death of her repairman husband, who fell from the town water tower and
was impaled on his own car antenna. "Billy? Whats going on? A guy out here said
something was up," she said, surveying the room. "For Petes sake, what are
you trying to do, kill yourself?"
Billy stuffed the gun down the back of his pants,
rattled. "Well . . . "
"Because leaning your head back like that is
dangerous," she said to Wild Man. "Youll choke on your own blood."
Billy slumped and shook his head in resignation. Then
he smiledmuch too broadly really to be believable. He sniffed, wiped his nose, as if
it were true that nothing was really happening, as if it was the most normal thing in the
world to be standing on the toilet, talking over the stall door to two guys who looked
like extras from Carrie. "Hey guess what," he said to her then.
"Guess who they are." He pointed to Paul and Wild Man, who were smoothing their
hair and their clothes, smiling as if it were school picture day. Exactly how it would
look if the El Corazón had picture day.
Veronica paused, squinting at Billy for a moment,
pulling her chin back quizzically into the girth of her neck. She opened her mouth, her
pale lips quivering, skepticism poised there.
Billy jumped down from the toilet and burst from the
stall. "Hey, dont worry. I have great news," he said, going to her with
open arms. He looked over his shoulder. "Isnt that right, guys?"
"Thats right," Paul said.
"Hey," said Wild Man, lunging toward the
floor. "I found your eye!" He scooped it up and gave it to Paul, palm open and
the eye in the center like a communion offering.
"There, you see?" said Billy.
"Its a sign." He watched Paul hold the eye up to the light, inspecting it,
and he couldnt help feeling it was watching him, the way he often felt like his
father watched him, from somewhere just above, not from the sky but closerfrom a
vantage point where he could see Billys mistakes exactly as they were. Not crimes of
short-sightedness but of expansiveness, a sort of double-jointed ability to love more than
one person at once. Billy reached over and gave Veronica a squeeze. "Do you have any
idea how wonderful you are?" he said. She smiled and wiped at the sweat on her upper
lip, the way a woman does when she feels singled out, on top of the world.