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image for R.A. Allen storyMonday Burning

R. A. Allen

I suppose you could call it a busman’s holiday: I’m a liquor salesman for Tri-Star Distributors, and this is a bar called Mike’s Place, and I’m taking the afternoon off.  Mike’s is not a dive, exactly, but it’s not the Oak Bar, either.  Because it’s on the edge of a neighborhood, some folks might call it a neighborhood tavern.  On the other hand, they might just as easily think of it as a has-been version of the trendy watering hole it once was back in the seventies, back when it was called something else.  I doubt, though, that many people give the definition of what Mike’s is this level of analysis.  But I have to.  I have the account for their well liquors, the stuff they pour in your glass when you don’t care enough to specify a brand.
            I survey all that lies before me, which is not much, it being a Monday in the middle of the afternoon.  Besides me, there are a couple of guys at the bar.  The new waitress is taking an order from a six-top of seniors.  There’s an artsy young couple at another table.  They appear to be stoned.  I look for the owner of the biker bike that is parked outside, but I don’t see a person that would fit that description.  Maybe he’s in the john.  The fat guy who is always here on Monday is sitting alone at the same table in the far corner, smoking his cigarettes, reading a book, and drinking whatever it is he drinks out of a snifter.  Cognac?  Brandy?  This place isn’t classy enough to carry Armagnac.  The Zaff twins, known mostly as The Power and The Glory, are tending bar.    
            My lovely companion is Joyce; she’s a waitress here.  Between studying my surroundings and holding this glass so that the scotch will stay inside and patting through my pockets for another pack of smokes, I’ve completely missed the last five minutes of what she’s been saying to me.
            “You’re not even listening to me,” she complains while roughly nudging my shoulder.  But she’s good-natured about it due to (A) we are old friends and (B) she’s used to it because most people find her boring.  Joyce and I have had casual sex throughout the years and still do when it’s convenient.  For us, it’s as normal as having a drink now and then.  Sexual friendship—what could be more natural and comforting?
            The L-shaped bar is a long one, forty feet that run nearly the length of the room, plus ten more feet—the part referred to as the rocking chair—that make up the foot of the L.  I always sit at the rocking chair.  Down bar, a nattering disagreement is gaining volume between a customer in a seersucker suit and The Glory.  Leastways, I think it’s The Glory—the Zaff boys are hard to tell apart from this distance. 
            “—told the clerk that I didn’t want kumquats, I wanted kiwis,” Joyce is saying.
            I give her a sympathetic nod.  We all need a little validation now and then. 
            An arm movement catches my attention.  A glass whizzes past a bartender’s head and smashes among the row of premium scotches on the back bar.  Ricocheting ice cubes and an aerosol flourish of pink liquid complete the display.  Notwithstanding the dissipated lifestyle of bartenders nearing thirty years of age, the twins are quite athletic; The Glory (or is it The Power?) manages to grab the unruly patron’s offending arm by the coat sleeve.  The Glory’s other hand forms a fist that pops the guy across the bridge of his nose.  The guy retaliates with his free arm, but the blow glances off The Glory’s shoulder.  Ashtrays, Bevnaps™, drink coasters, and anything else on the bar within reach of the combatants goes flying.  With piston-like jabs, The Glory whacks the guy’s face and head. 
            The males among the table of seniors stand up to better see what is happening.  I head for the action. 
            Joyce grabs my arm and forces me back down.  “Stay out of it,” she snaps.  “You’re too drunk and too old.  Bump!” she yells, searching for Bump, a large Negro who cooks in the afternoon and bounces at night.  “Stay put,” she orders me, and then dashes for the kitchen.  The ease with which she’s put me back in the seat of my barstool convinces me there is something to what she says.
            By now, The Power has rushed to the aid of his brother, grabbing the guy’s collar.  The Power and The Glory attempt to pull him over the bar where they can inflict some honest damage, but their victim is having none of it.  Firmly in opposition to their plan, he has rigidly angled his midsection at the bar’s edge while bracing his knees against the front of the bar—not to mention he is also a fair-sized person.  He mule kicks a barstool clattering across the room.  The artsy couple goes, “wow”; the fat man in the corner lowers his book. 
            From within the kitchen, I can hear Joyce shouting for Bump, who is most likely to be out by the dumpster smoking a joint.
            I am surprised that, while the room is filled with the noises of human combat, most of the sounds are unintelligible.  Rather, they are the guttural beginnings of words, their endings being lost in eruptive exhalations.  The guy makes “k”-type grunts that I interpret as an attempt at “kill.”  “Muff-” is in there a lot, too.
            The Power and The Glory still have him by the sleeve and collar of his suit coat, but one of the guy’s arms is still free.  Flipper-like, it flails viciously, still capable of destruction.  The twins’ punches are landing more haphazardly now.  The Power throws a hook that hits the guy on the top of his head; I see The Power wince at the pain in his knuckles.
            Finally, like the Rock of Gibraltar on casters, Bump emerges from the kitchen, ducking his head beneath the doorway’s lintel.  Joyce is flitting around him on all sides like a mama bird, urging haste.  Bump is the personification of menace, a movie version of the heavy who breaks arms for the mob.  He grabs the guy by his belt and, in a voice lower than the slippage of tectonic plates, tells the twins, “Aw’ right, I got him now.”
But the twins, deaf in the freight-train roar of their own adrenaline, are totally committed; they aren’t even aware that Bump is in the same city.  They have the guy secured by clothing, flesh, and hair; plus, for extra leverage, they each have a foot planted against the side of the beer cooler beneath the bar.  He belongs to them.
            There is a moment of equipoise, of stalemate, of impasse: two hyenas in a tug-o-war with a lion over the carcass of a wildebeest.
             “Got him, I says,” says Bump, hauling back.
             Bump applies all 340 pounds of his bulk, and the guy flies free of the twins’ grasp.  The guy looks like he’s been sucked through a jet engine.  Bemused, The Gory is left holding the unattached right sleeve of the guy’s coat.  Bump drags the goofaloon to the front door and tosses him out on the sidewalk like a medieval housewife emptying a chamber pot. 
            I stand up, clapping and whistling and cheering for the twins and Bump—I have been grandly entertained.  Joyce places her hand on my arm.  “Baby,” she coos, “we need to straighten you up.  Come with me.” 
            Again, I realize that she is right, and I allow her to lead me back to the storeroom.  On a tip tray, Joyce divides a mound of white powder into three lines with a credit card.  She does one of them and then hands me a rolled bill, indicating for me to snort the rest.  Which I do.  My head clears immediately, and I show my gratitude by nuzzling and groping her.  I put forth that a quickie amongst these fine boxes and crates might be salubrious.  But, like a by-the-book cop, she eschews my attentions, citing a duty to employer and customers alike.  She tells me to go back to my seat, have one more drink, and then go home to my wife.  I tell her I will.
            Back at the bar, The Power has his hand buried in the ice bin.  It’s swelling up on me, he says.  The Glory is mopping up blood with a soda rag.  I order my farewell scotch-on-the-rocks and settle in.  The analeptic stimulant from the storeroom still courses in my bloodstream.
            So: Am I an alky?  It’s hard to say.  I know I drink more than the average moderate drinker, but it’s not so much a need as a time management issue.  What should I do? landscape my yard? take up golf? start a family?  You see, the normal things haven’t stuck to me like they do most people.  Seven years of college; no degree.  At forty-one, it’s all I can do to maintain a marital relationship—and we’re on our second trial-reconciliation at that.  
            The day nods back into its yawning pace, and everything is the way it was before all the excitement.  One of the seniors wanders off to the restroom.  I study the new waitress’s posterior as she carries a fresh drink to the fat man in the corner.  The Glory flips through the TV channels: soap opera, CNN, an up-in-arms talk show, soap, cartoons, baseball game.  He settles on the ballgame.  The Power mentions that he might need to go to the ER about his hand.  The Glory calls him a pussy.  No, really, says The Power.  I nurse my drink and wonder what’s for dinner—or if I’ll be heating up a can of soup.  I like cream of mushroom.  Do we have any?  The minutes, like baseball innings, pass languidly—which is fine with me.
            But then I hear a scream from one of the ladies at the table of seniors.  The new waitress screams next, and I see a bright light.  I see yellow-white flames in the corner.  The fat man is on fire!  Fire is all over him!  He is already a charred silhouette within a sheet of flame from his waist to above his head.  Every woman in the place is screaming.  One of the old men is the first to take action by slinging half a pitcher of beer—which misses—at the burning fat man.  The Glory, having located the fire extinguisher under the hand sink, vaults the bar and rushes to the scene.  He aims and presses the lever but has neglected to pull the safety pin.  “It’s jammed, it’s jammed!” he yells.  From nowhere, Joyce appears with a tablecloth that she partially throws over the fire victim.  The Power, now at his twin’s side, yanks the pin; and, with a loud whoosh, a snow cloud of phosphate powder envelops the burning man.  I dial 911 on my cell. 
            Amazingly, the smoldering, charbroiled fat man is still upright in his chair; he exhibits no signs of life.  There is some residual smoke, but not as much as you’d think.  Repellent as the sight is, everyone gathers around except for the artsy girl, who we can hear retching in the ladies room.  Her boyfriend is taking notes on his forearm with a ballpoint pen.  A nidorous stench hangs in the air, and our hands or our handkerchiefs or cocktail napkins cover our noses.  We don’t talk as much as might be expected, either.  We just stare.  I know what is dawning on us.  We have all been party to a momentous, heretofore unwitnessed, phenomenon: Live Spontaneous Human Combustion.
            The authorities arrive within minutes: firemen, then emergency medical techs, and then the cops.  They shoo us out of the way, and a fireman with a tank on his back re-extinguishes the dead fat guy who finally falls from his chair.  Somewhat uncertainly, the EMTs take over.  After a glance at the corpse, the cops fan out amongst us, looking for answers.  This is my cue to leave, and I drift toward the kitchen door. 
            It is apparently The Power’s cue to leave, too, as he is also moving toward the kitchen.  He says to no one in particular, “I need to go to the hospital.”
            “I’ll drive you,” I say.  And we sidle unnoticed through the kitchen door. 
            In the lot out back, I ask, “Outstanding warrant?”
            “Maybe,” he answers.  “What about you?”
            “Maybe.  Nothing serious, though.”                  
            “Me neither.”
At a nearby minor emergency clinic, it turns out that The Power’s hand is only bruised, but he doesn’t want to go back to his shift at Mike’s, so I drop him off at his apartment and go home.
             Boudica has one of her headaches.  She’s lying in the spare bedroom, lights off, with a washcloth over her eyes.  Normally, I know better than to attempt conversation at times like these, but I have just seen something extraordinary.  I need to talk about it.              “Honey,” I say, “you won’t believe what just happened.”
            “Ummmph,” she moans. 
            “This guy caught fire for no reason.  He burnt like the Hindenburg, sweetheart, and—”
            “Are you drunk?”
            “No, baby.  This guy just—right in the middle of Mike’s, he just—“
            “Have you been drinking?”
            “No.  Yes, but just two beers.  He—this guy who’s always there—exploded in a huge ball of fi—”
            My wife flings her washcloth to the floor and turns on the bedside lamp and looks at me, her eyes crisscrossed with sleep and anger.  “Does that whore still work there?” she demands.
            “What whore?”
            “You know what whore.  The redhead with the boob job—Joanne.”
            “Baby, I don’t know any ‘Joanne’”.
            “Not Joanne—whatshername, Joyce.  That whore.  You know who I’m talking about.”
            “I’da know.  Yes.  Yes, Joyce is still there.  But this is not about Joyce or anyone who works there or the Queen of France.  It’s about a guy who—“
            “You are such an asshole.”
            In my best frantic falsetto, I paraphrase John Hurt in his title roll of The Elephant Man: “I am not an asshole.  I am a human being.” I have used this one to defuse marital discordance before, and, at one time, Boudica would laugh and the argument would be over.
            But not today.
            She says, “Asshole bastard,” and turns off the light and rolls to the wall.
             I love her, but we don’t seem to fit anymore.  Quietly, I shut the door and hurry to the kitchen.  The evening news is about to air.  There is no cream of mushroom, so I open a can of tomato and shake its glutinous blob into a pan and put the pan on a burner.
With a heraldry of trumpets mimicking Morse code, the intro to Channel Six’s News At Five brings the kitchen to life.  The anchor guy greets us with the usual opening hello and all that.  Incredibly, the lead story is about corruption at city hall, which, in this town, amounts to “dog bites man.”
            The next item is a murder: Unidentified male in his early twenties found shot in the head by nobody knows in a neighborhood populated by deaf blind people.  All they show on this segment is a chalk outline cordoned off by yellow tape. Presumably, the ambulance left before the Channel Six van got there.  They interview a cop who is “reluctant to discuss an ongoing investigation, but if any member of the public knows anything, they should come forward,” blah-blah, “held in the strictest confidence,” quack-quack, “cash reward for information leading to an arrest,” et cetera, amen.
            After the murder comes a report about a bus wreck—a school bus wreck.  This is an attention-getter until you find out that there were no kids on the bus and that the driver was not hurt—not even a chipped fingernail—and that it was the bus that rear-ended a Volvo at an exurban four-way stop.  I realize that this story is not about the wreck per se.  It’s about: if there had been children on board and if the wreck had been more serious, what then?  Even the newscasters seem tired of it.  I am astonished.  Did this station somehow miss the event at Mike’s altogether?
            But then the pinstriped co-anchor says, “In a bizarre incident at a midtown bar, a man burned to death.  Witnesses say it was a case of spontaneous human combustion. Was it?  Find out after we return.”
            And they go to a commercial—several, actually.  I eat my soup and wonder about the fat guy.  On weekday afternoons, he was always there in the corner with his book.  Ordering drinks was the limit of his verbalization.  He was the bar’s mysterious stranger; nobody even knew his name.  I wonder if he had people that he loved, people that loved him—like a wife.  
            On the sidewalk in front of Mike’s Place, a reporter interviews a fire marshal in a crisp, gold-braided uniform.  He gives us the official account: Man catches fire, pronounced dead at the scene. 
            Now they cut, mid-interview, to one of the seniors who had apparently started out by trying to tell his life story before getting down to cases: retired mechanic, widower, moved down here from St. Louis in 1974. . . .  The reporter manages to rein him in.  “We all looked up and he was on fire,” says the senior.  “He busted into flames.  I tried to put him out with a pitcher of water, but the heat from the fire was too intense.  It was instantaneous human incineration.”
            “‘Spontaneous’,” I say to the TV.  “It was spontaneous human combustion.”
            Lastly, we hear from a spokesman from the Medical Examiner’s office—scrubs, stethoscope, hospital badge.  He tells us that the preliminary findings suggest the victim suffered a heart attack while drinking an alcoholic beverage, which spilled on his clothing and was ignited by a lit cigarette, thereby causing him to be consumed in fire. 
            “So, in your opinion, this was not a case of spontaneous human combustion?” prompts the reporter.
            “No, it was not.”
            The co-anchor comes back on and tells us that the authorities are waiting to release the victim’s name, pending notification of next of kin.
            I turn the TV off and sag into my chair, deflated.
            Now, I know a bit about liquor and can say with certainty that it won’t ignite in a liquid state from contact with the heat of a cigarette.  It’s high school physics: when your waitperson flames your Bananas Foster on his tableside cart, he lights the preheated rum vapors rising from the sauté pan, not the liquid rum.  I conclude that this medical examiner must not get out much.
            I can’t stay here in this too-too-quiet house; so, feeling obsessive and foolish at the same time, I decide to go back to Mike’s Place. 
After sundown, the personality of Mike’s undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts.  The crowd is edgier and it’s too dark.  Disparate groups of customers huddle together and give off sidelong glances while they hatch plots in low tones.  It becomes the kind of bar that makes newcomers hesitate near the front door.  I see that my usual seat is unoccupied.  As I head for it, I look for veterans of this afternoon’s fireworks.  I don’t see anybody except The Glory.  He’s been hooked into working a double shift, he explains when he brings me my scotch—goddamn night bartender no-showed.  The Glory says that he is tired.
             “Weird day, eh,” I say, by way of starting a conversation.
            “Too fucking weird.  The brawls are bad enough, but puttin’ out human torches is above and beyond the call.  My nerves won’t handle it.  Thinkin’ about getting outta this trade altogether, man.  Many more days like today, and I’ll go join a convent.”
            “You mean join a monastery, don’t you?”
            “Wherever they’ll take me.”  And he heads back to the service bar to fill a drink order.
            Through the darkness, like a figure stepping out of a Caravaggio, I see the artsy young guy from this afternoon coming toward me.  He has longish limp hair the color of black shoe polish, and he’s dressed all in black and he wears a serious expression.  (Some people are determined to stereotype themselves.)  “Excuse me,” he says.  “Weren’t you in here this afternoon?”
            I allow that I was.
            “Wow!  I knew it.  My name is Dirk.”
            (Dirk?)  We shake hands.
            He says, “Would you please tell my friends, here, what happened to the man that burned up.”  With him are a guy who shops in the same heroin-chic thrift store that Dirk does and another kid who is everybody’s caricature of a computer dork.  “I told them, but they won’t believe me,” he says.  “And when the bartender backed me up, they think I put him up to it.”
            I say, “Guy attended his own cremation.”
            Suddenly, I am the standard-bearer of truth.  His buds want details, and I give them.  They ask questions, and I answer them.  This end of the bar becomes the site of a lively conversation that’s like popcorn popping in a bag.  The Glory adds his comments when he is down this way.  A couple that has seen the TV news overhear us and join in.  Somebody buys the next round.  Somebody else plays devil’s advocate.
            Dirk tells me that he writes graphic novels, which I figure out are the same as comic books but not particularly funny.  He and his friends are sci-fi enthusiasts, and they suspect a cover-up by the local authorities—a Roswell, a grassy knoll, a Watergate.  Along these lines, graphic novelist Dirk is, at this very moment, gathering material for his next graphic novel.  Can he quote me?  Sure.  Is it okay if he sketches my likeness into his work?  Only if he makes me look like Clark Kent, I say, and we all laugh.
But it won’t be another Roswell.  It won’t be anything.  We’re just people in a bar and nothing that ever happens in a bar is taken seriously the next day—even something like spontaneous human combustion.  As a rule, I’m not the cynical type, but what I am experiencing at this minute is cynicism, and this makes me a little sad, a little sick.  And I can’t help from wondering about the dead fat guy.
            The party continues, but I am outside the moment.
            Down by the service bar, The Glory is doing exactly nothing.  There is a lull in bar traffic, and he is simply standing there, gazing out at a nowhere void, mouth slightly agape.  He looks beat.  There is something else about him, though, something that gives me a turn.  He seems to be glowing and fading away at the same time.  Oh, no, I am thinking, is he dying?  Am I dying?  Am I having a stroke?  It’s almost like I can see through him.  Of course, it has to be a trick of the lighting in Mike’s.  His seeming transparency is probably caused by the fluorescent lights under the bar reflecting onto his shirt from the rippling dishwater in the deep sink.  And the ethereal, bluish aura that appears to radiate from him surely has to be raining down from the TV or the neon clock, or perhaps it’s from the back bar’s illumination, smoky lightshafts fractured and prismed by the bottles that surround him.  I blink hard a couple of times, and The Glory comes back into sharper focus.  Whew, I think, we almost lost him.
            One of Dirk’s friends is asking if he can bum a cigarette.  I hand him the pack.             “Here, dude, keep ’em,” I say.  “I’m quitting.”

Author Bio

R.A. AllenR.A. Allen lives in Memphis. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, among others, SinisterCity, The Cantarville Journal, Trillium, Grim Graffiti, and Sniplits (audio); poetry in Word Riot.

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