I was down at the Grapevine sucking on a pale ale when Fred Nelson sidled up, still covered in soot and grime from his shift at the pits. We sat in silence a while before he perforated it with a belch and said, “You hear about Jimmy?”
“Jimmy Cox?” I said.
He looked at me like I’d just asked him for last year’s lottery numbers. “No, not Jimmy Cox,” he said. I returned to my Ale and he went on staring at me like that for a minute before saying, “Aren’t you gonna ask which Jimmy?”
“Oh. Sure. Jimmy Tomorrow?”
He slapped the bar, making our bottles just about quiver off their coasters. They weren’t good coasters, just old cork things that’d been around since our fathers were the ones slapping the bar. “That’s right. Jimmy goddamn Tomorrow. You know what he did?”
“Nah,” I said, then flagged down Mimi and got a Coke; my liver was throbbing already.
“Aren’t you gonna ask?” Fred said. His eyes were glassy and rimmed with dust. “Is this some sort of game?”
“Nah, sorry. What’d Jimmy Tomorrow do now? He’s always up to something.”
“Sure is. Let me tell you. This time his wife threw him out of the house. She had enough. So, as he says to me, he wandered around in the cold until he got to the fire barn, you know, that building where they keep the number-two pump truck? It isn’t much more than a shack with a couple of cots and a sink and an overhead door to keep out the racoons.”
Mimi came around, interrupting Fred. When doing the Coke hand off she touched my hand by accident and it made me long for the old days when she and I flirted like it meant something. I smiled at her, but she turned away right quick. “Yeah. I remember it.”
“He’s a volunteer, you know? And so he says he’s been sleeping there whenever he’s on the outs, but this time the cot’s been chewed through by squirrels or something, so he crawls up into the truck bed to catch his Zs.”
“Yeah, except this time there’s a fire, only there’s no alarm or nothing in that old barn. He’s drunk as a skunk as usual and doesn’t come to until some volunteers are firing up the truck and screaming down the hill with Jimmy Tomorrow in the back wondering if he’s gonna see another day.”
I always liked the way Fred tells stories. He has a way of rounding the narrative corners at top speed without sacrificing key details.
“Shit. Sounds terrifying.”
“Yeah, yeah, get this. Jimmy’s grabbing onto this and that to keep from rolling out into the street, and you know what he gets his hands on?”
“Go on, tell me.”
“A firehose. Except when he grabs it, it’s all loose, and he’s tugging at it like it’s the world’s biggest roll of toilet paper, flip flip flip, just tugging away as the number two barrels through town with its sirens on. No one can hear him hollering as he goes on unspooling that firehose and trying to keep from splattering on the pavement. It’s only as the truck pulls up to a blaze at the old schoolhouse that he reaches the end of the hose. He hops down and bolts into the woods while the crew stands there looking at that damn hose running all the way down the street.”
Fred stared at me, waiting for some laughter of acknowledgement, but all I said was, “Nah.”
“He’s pulling your leg. All our legs.”
“Come on, man. It isn’t like that. Jimmy Tomorrow is a straight shooter.”
“Oh yeah? What’s his real last name?”
Fred rubbed his neck hard thinking that one over. He was a tough little guy, Scottish blood raging through the veins in his cheekbones. “Shit. That’s a stumper.”
“They don’t keep the hoses in the bed of the number two. They’re stowed in the storage units above the wheel well.”
“No. Is it? No.” He leaned with his elbows on the bar. “Jimmy Simmons? He wouldn’t lie to me like that. Come on.”
We argued a good while longer before Mimi rapped on the bell as a sign for us to shut up. I took offense with that, no so much with the tone as the confirmation that the best days were truly extinguished, and then I just couldn’t take it anymore and said I was going to go up the hill to see the truck myself. I’d report back the same time tomorrow.
Fred laughed at that. He didn’t believe me.
I sucked down the rest of my Coke, tossed a sharp sidelong glance at Mimi, and headed out into the nippy air with my collar flipped up and my ears hunkered down in the concavity of my shoulders.
It took fifteen minutes of uphill marching before the fire barn came into view. It looked decrepit as hell and perhaps even a fire hazard itself. Its less admirable features like smashed-out windows, cocks and boobs spray-painted on the side, and a porous roof were slowly coming clear to me in the November dark when all of a sudden the shadows shifted and form slunk out of the gloom on the far side of the building. I froze hard in place and didn’t even dare remove my hands from my coat pockets.
The thing snuffled about in the leaves a couple moments before edging toward me. I was still unsure whether to retreat, run, kick, scream, or dive through one of the smashed-out windows of the barn, but just then the creature let out a long low whine of the sort a piggo makes, or a kid’s toy. The thing came closer and I realized it was just Piddy Frank, the pit bull that belongs to Leslie Gatlin, the police chief.
“Frank? That you?”
Frank’s tail was low and not wagging an inch but he was one geriatric butterball, no more a pit bull than I was an ace detective. Chief Gatlin lived on the other side of town, however, so whatever Frank was up to was suspect. When I leaned forward with my hands on my knees I saw that a two-foot length of fat red leash was hanging from his neck. He’d either gnawed through it or yanked himself free and went for a wander.
“Piddy Frank, what in the hell you up to?”
I made a movement toward him like I was going to grab the leash, and that was that, he was gone, scrambling through the darkness.
I like Leslie, or at least I like being on his good side. I didn’t like that his dog-friend was running loose through town. So I took off after him.
Man, that old Piddy could run. Sure, his legs were stiff as a giraffe’s and he was about as graceful to boot, but his flight instinct was overriding such impediments. Within a hundred yards he was barely in sight.
My feet freewheeled down the hill, back toward town. What took me fifteen minutes to climb flew past in five. My thighs were crying for mercy and my ex-smoker lungs were flaring up, but damn if I was going to let that old dog get a leg up on me. He slowed down at one point, his nails scritching long and mad on the concrete as a furiously delicious scent caught his attention. He sniffed quickly, then sprayed a warm splat of yellow onto the wall.
“Frank! Stop, man. I just want to talk.”
His big dark eyes glanced at me, and with the remains of the leash hanging from his neck he looked like some sort of cynical douche from the city. Then he took off again, the tie now flapping over his shoulder like he was hellbent on getting out of the office before the boss caught up with him.
“Your poppa—he’s gonna be pissed!”
Man, could he pump up those hills. We hit a set of long stairs, and while I had to take them two at a time, he goat-hopped his way up and crested the top like a surfer. I plodded down the backside and hurried across the soccer fields only to see the second hill looming, a doozy that all the cyclists and runners call The Wall. Well, The Wall wasn’t anything to Piddy Frank. He gave me one more over-the-shoulder glance, then bounced his way up and over.
Only when I reached the top did I realize he was heading right back to the chief’s house. I wasn’t doing anything but coercing him into returning home.
The next night I took up my spot at the Grapevine and relayed these events to Fred and a few other guys from the sand pits, and soon enough our knees were bruised from all the slapping and our eyes were burning from all the tear-wiping. Even Mimi was enjoying the thread, standing there with her arms crossed, shaking her head just enough to make her wavy blond hair catch the lights above the bar. I had a third Ale and it seemed like a fourth was inevitable, but that’s when things took a turn. The door jangled and in walked this sad sack named Craig Gooch.
Usually we ribbed him good but there was something in his face that looked off. We all pivoted on our stools as he shuffled over.
“They got Jimmy,” he said.
Mimi leaned on the bar top to hear better.
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
Craig shook his head. “He roughed up his old lady pretty good. She locked herself in the bathroom and called the police and when they showed up, Jimmy came out the front door with a kitchen knife and that was that. Blam, blam, plugged twice in the chest, blood everywhere.”
We sat there a moment digesting this. I tried to take a sip of Ale but it tasted like tin foil.
Fred sucked good and long on his beer. “Damn, Jimmy.” The others returned to their bottles and Craig took a stool and ordered a girly drink.
“Hey,” Fred said to me, “whatever happened to the hoses? Did you check so that you could verify Jimmy’s story about his wild ride?”
Everyone turned toward me, expecting something good. “Yeah. The hose was there. I guess he’s legit.” I stared into my beer a moment, then thought better and hoisted it high. “To Tomorrow. And all the yesterdays.”
Fred lifted his shot glass high and said, “To Jimmy Tomorrow, may he laugh in peace.”
The guys mirrored us. Only Craig didn’t salute. “Nah, I wasn’t talking about Jimmy Tomorrow. Jimmy Cox, I mean.”
We looked at him long and hard, then set our drinks down with a groan.
“Aw man.” Fred said. “Screw that. I’m glad the police put two in that guy’s chest.”
“Yup,” someone echoed.
“For real,” his neighbor chimed in.
I slid my Ale away. Mimi scooped it up, then slammed down a Coke, nearly spilling it, and hurried off to tend to some other alcoholic’s needs.
I wished I hadn’t lied about the hoses. And I wished I’d caught Frank. That would’ve been a better story. Whenever I get to telling a good tale, Mimi’s eyes light up and I think this time I’ve got a chance.
Christopher X Ryan lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he works as a writer and book editor. Born in Massachusetts, he has an MFA from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. He is represented by the Trentin Agency for his nordic literary noir THE NORTHLAND, which will ideally find a home in 2019. His work has previously appeared in journals such as Pank, Copper Nickel, Bombay Gin, and Matter, among others. His story DAY SHAPES earned second place in the 2019 Baltimore Review winter contest. Website: TheWordPunk.com, Facebook: Christopher X Ryan