Nov '03 [Home]

Spring-Summer 2003 Fiction Contest Winner (Short)

Rodney Nelsestuen

. ... Gene Bartholomew (Buddy) Poulson, slapped his sweaty forearm on the bar. The fatty jowls below his cheeks jiggled.
          "Jasper's Revenge and a beer chaser."
          From his stool at the end of the bar, Jasper put down his cigarette and came over to stand in front of Buddy with both hands on his side of the rail.
          "Big thirst tonight?" he said, nearly glaring.
          "Damn. Why not?"
          "Okay," Jasper said, rubbing his chin with one hand. "But I'm telling you, Buddy, any trouble like after the Super Bowl and I'll call the cops this time."
          Buddy leveled his eyes at the bartender. "I'm thirsty, Jasper, not pissed. Besides, that was nearly three months ago and I've been in here almost every day since—a perfect gentleman."
          Jasper pulled back. "Because you've stayed off the hard stuff."
           Buddy knew he wasn't liked much in Jasper's place. But he was a regular, one of the bar's fixtures, he'd say. As for not being angry, both he and Jasper knew it was a lie. He never touched the potent Jasper's Revenge except when he was angry and wanted to get drunker than usual.
          "Have it your way." Jasper pulled out a tall pilsner glass and began adding six shots of assorted liquors to it. "Mix?" he asked.
          "Iced tea, two lumps of sugar."
          Jasper poured the glass three-quarters full, then plunked in the ice.
          "Light beer?" he asked.
          "What, do I look like I'm on a diet?" Buddy leaned back from the bar leaving a sweat mark where his arm had lain. His neck came straight out of his shirt; it was hard to tell where it ended and his head began. Jasper pulled a tall tap beer, set both drinks down in front of Buddy, and returned to his still-burning cigarette.
          Buddy Poulson weighed three hundred and forty-one pounds. At least he had that morning. That meant he was down five pounds since last week and nearly twenty-seven in the last month. The doctor had told him if he didn't lose a hundred pounds soon, he'd probably die before he reached sixty. And that was only five years away.
          He stared at the mixed drink, took two big gulps, then seized the beer and drained it. The hell with the doctor. Jasper saw the empty glass and came over and refilled it.
          "Seven bucks," he said.
          Buddy nodded and pulled out a wad of bills from his pocket. He wiped sweat from his forehead and fished a ten from the wad, handed it to Jasper and forced a smile at him.
          Jasper took the money and held it up. "The change goes on your tab."
          Buddy nodded. "Wanna hear what I saw today?"
          "Hell, no. It's probably some sick thing about some poor high school girl you got the hots for. Jesus, why do they let guys like you teach high school anyway?"
          "Because I'm smart, that's why."
          "Smart, my ass. If I had a daughter, she sure as hell wouldn't be in any class you taught."
          Buddy's eyes narrowed. "She'd be damn lucky to have me. I'd make her into an Einstein. Except for one thing."
          "Yeah? What's that?"
          "Being your kid would mean she didn't have any brains and you can't make a silk purse out of a pig's ass."
          "When you going to pay the rest of your tab?"
          Buddy took a swig of the hard drink. "How much is it?"
          "Just over two hundred bucks. Nobody else has one like it."
          Buddy cocked his head and raised an eyebrow at Jasper. He grabbed a bar napkin and pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket.
          "Jasper, I'm going to give you a math lesson—maybe an economics lesson, too. How much do I spend here each year?" He poised the pen over the napkin.
          "How the hell should I know?"
          "Why Jasper, you should know your best customers. It's just good business."
          "Yeah? I have a feeling you're going to tell me all about it."
          "That I am. According to my records, I spent three thousand two hundred eighteen dollars and change here in the past twelve-month rolling period. In fact, I've spent over three thousand dollars each year for the past ten years. Now, my running tab at two hundred bucks is right at six percent of my annual purchases. If you looked back, you'd see it's been around two hundred bucks for nearly all that time which, then, concerns me that you might bring the issue up now. If you're so concerned about two hundred bucks, maybe your business is in trouble. But that's another story. What you've got, Jasper, is a top notch customer in whom you've a six percent investment."
          Jasper had started wiping down the bar, but he was listening. Buddy grinned at him.
          "And now the real important stuff. You make a one hundred percent margin on the drinks you sell, maybe two hundred. Well, it doesn't matter for illustration purposes. In my case, that's, say, sixteen hundred bucks a year. Considering the two hundred on the tab, you've got one point five months of my company at risk at any given time."
          Jasper pulled another tap and put it in front of Buddy. "Okay, okay, I get the picture," he said and walked away.
          Buddy hated the way Jasper had treated him since the Super Bowl, the mix of deliberate condescension and parental sternness. He couldn't stand to think about it. He brushed one hand over his thinning crew cut. "Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh."
          Too early for the regular crowd, he settled down to nurse his drinks. But the lack of someone to talk to gave him time to think. He didn't want to think, but couldn't help himself, especially today. He tried to write on the napkin to distract himself. It didn't work. Two basic points kept coming back to him:  First, he'd taught math in the same high school for thirty years; second, today they'd asked him to retire.
          "You got your thirty years in, Buddy. That's full pension," John England had said. "Besides, anything else like what happened yesterday and things might start to go badly for you. Could affect your right to your pension if there are criminal charges and you're found guilty." The principal had paused and shaken his pragmatic head. "Hell, Buddy, you can't touch a high school girl like that and live to tell about it."
          Buddy knew England was trying to help him.
          "Look, if you announce your retirement now, we can transfer Jennifer to another class and ride out the storm for the last month of school. I think I can get her father to back off his threat to go to the district attorney."
          John could be effective. Buddy had seen it twice before in the guy's ten years as principal. But those cases had been pretty clear cut. In one, the teacher had gone over the edge emotionally and couldn't control herself. She'd cried in class every day and then begun to show up only once a week. It'd gotten so that things were better when the subs ran the class. The other case got close to him when he started drinking with Neil Johnson. Neil had really lost it and been drinking all the time, even in school. By the time his last term ended, he'd been a shell of a man who talked all the time in a hollow voice and never had anything to say anyway. In both cases, John had kept them in their jobs until they could get out under the best economic terms possible.
          But, shit, they were losers. Neither kept up with their fields. Neither had been a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist like he'd been. Neither of them could have had a math fellowship at Stanford like he'd been offered.
          Buddy stared at his beer. Now, John England was putting him in the same league. Fuck him, Buddy thought. Those other two were losers.
          "What's up, big guy?"
          Buddy turned to the man leaning in next to him along the bar. "Hank, you still alive?"
          "It's good to see you, too, Buddy." He paused and Buddy knew he was waiting for an invitation. He nodded and Hank sat down beside him. Buddy raised one finger and nodded at Jasper who brought Hank a shot of whiskey and a tap beer. Buddy paid cash.
          "Thanks for the drink. I owe you one."
          "According to my records, Hank, you owe me something over fifty."
          "You having one of those days?"
          "Maybe. Don't know yet. The night's young." Buddy drained nearly a full glass of beer into his mouth. He rinsed, gargled, then swallowed. Hank shook his head.
          "That mouth of yours…like it could hold a six-pack."
          "Something like that." Buddy belched. "Haven't seen you for a while, Hank."
          "I know. Last time was Super Bowl Sunday. You really tore this place up."
          "I don't like football anymore."
          "That's what you said then."
          "I did, eh?" He'd never said that to anyone as far as he could remember.
          "Yep. You said it clear as a bell. Remember? You said today's football hasn't got what it had in your day. You said there was no heart in it. Not in college, not in the pros. You said—"
          "That players got their mommies and their agents to take care of them."
          "Word for word, Buddy." Hank took a drink.
          Buddy eyed himself in the mirror below the top-shelf bottles. It bothered him that he couldn't remember saying this. Sure, he believed it. But he was almost certain he'd never said it aloud to anyone. If he'd told Hank, then he wondered how many other people he'd said it to when he was drunk.
          He'd been a stand-out defensive tackle for four years at elite private Weston College, broken the school record for solo tackles each of those years. His record had stood for more than a decade after he left. His name made all the local papers and he was even mentioned in Sports Illustrated his senior year. Pro scouts came to watch him, and when he graduated in '69, there was speculation he'd be drafted in a late round by the Bears.
          With his sleeves rolled up, both tattoos on Hank's forearms showed. The left one said "Rangers" and the other simply "Nam." Hank had been to Vietnam all right. He told anyone who'd listen all about it. Buddy was sure he'd heard every story a dozen times. If conditions were right some night and he'd run out of things to say to some woman, he could launch into one of Hank's stories and make it his own. But that would be a goddamn sad thing to do and he'd never do it, he decided.
          When he turned down the Stanford math fellowship in favor of going to pro camp try-outs, the army caught up with him. But with three knee surgeries in four years, and the fact that he had ballooned to over three hundred pounds that summer, he failed the medical.

Hank threw back his whiskey and finished his beer. "Well, gotta go, Buddy."
          Buddy put his thick arm across Hank's narrow shoulders. "What's the hurry?"
          Hank pointed to the beer sign clock over the bar. "Hell, man, it's eleven already. I gotta work tomorrow." He slid out from under Buddy's arm, slapped him on the shoulder. "Thanks for the drinks."
          It was getting late and regardless of what else happened, he too had to work tomorrow. It seemed like he'd just gotten here, but that was at four thirty when the sun blanked out the doorway whenever it opened. He watched as Hank disappeared into the darkness of that door.
          In front of him were six large pilsner glasses, which meant he'd had at least that many Revenges, probably more. His beer glass was half empty. He looked around. No one to talk to, so he ordered another Revenge and a beer and started writing on the napkin. He saw Jasper watching him out of the corners of his eyes as he mixed the drink.
          When he finished the drinks, he put his pen into his shirt pocket and swung around on the bar stool. Pete Tofte was playing pool with a woman probably ten years older. She looked good, though. High miles on her, but she'd kept her package together.
          Buddy waved to Pete, who didn't notice. The little shit. "Hey, Pete!" Pete ignored him, although Buddy was sure he'd heard him. "Hey, you! Peter Tofte!" Jasper rose from his stool. Pete looked up and waved without smiling. Jasper sat down again as Pete came over.
          "Who is she?"
          "The woman. The one that could be your mother."
          "Her name's Mary Ann."
          "Sure it is. How'd she find this place?"
          "For chrissake, Buddy, I don't know. What's it to you anyway?" Pete offered him a cigarette. Buddy hesitated, then took it and Pete lit it for him.
          "I shouldn't smoke these," he said.
          "None of us should. But what the hell." The two men looked uneasily at each other.
          Pete raised his eyebrows. "You gonna mess this up for me?" He jerked his head toward the woman. They both watched her standing with the pool cue between her legs, lighting a cigarette and staring back at them.
          Buddy thought about it. He could mess it up. She might be a football fan and he could tell her about college and the pros. He looked at her again. She had a short nose and blonde hair, obviously not her color, but well done. She was lean, but muscled. Just like he imagined Christine would look today if she hadn't divorced him.
          Christine and Buddy dated through college. She clung tightly to him for four years and told him often how much she loved him. God, she was beautiful. When Stanford offered him the math fellowship, Christine said he could always do that, but he'd never get the chance to play pro ball if he didn't go after it now. They decided to get married, and when he graduated, she dropped out and helped him get ready for the pro camps.
          When he wasn't drafted by the Bears, she got him to go to their walk-on tryouts that summer. He made the first cut, but not the second. He tried going to other pro teams, but it was too late and no one was interested. With the stress of it all, he gained thirty pounds to top out at three hundred. Now he was wishing that's all he weighed.
          Christine talked him into playing semi pro ball that year for two hundred bucks a game. She said he could sharpen his skills and try again the next year. The third game he tore another ligament in his knee and the doctors told him he'd never play again. His parents said they wouldn't help him anymore, that both he and Christine needed to find work. Christine told them she hated them.
          Within a month after that ugly meeting, he'd been served divorce papers. He hadn't seen Christine in over twenty years.
          Buddy looked down at the napkin with his doodles. "No, Pete, she's all yours."
          "You sure?"
          "Naaah, I'll leave you alone." Pete nodded and went back to his pool partner.
          As the woman bent over the table to shoot, Buddy studied her bottom. He wasn't sure whose bottom it looked like. In a way, it looked just like Christine's, or maybe it was like Jennifer's. He didn't like being confused. It was Jennifer's then.
          Jennifer Lang was his best math student, the best in thirty years of teaching. Once he realized how gifted she was, he tried hard to get the district to let him coach the math team again. For seventeen years, he'd had a first-rate program. The last two, no one would come out. The administration said it was because of his habits. He knew he didn't take care of himself, but he was quite sure he never smelled as bad as some of the kids said he did. And his temper, well, that never bothered anyone—if you disregarded the shouting match with the judges at the state meet his final year. After it was all over, he was able to prove that Green's Theorem was a legitimate method for solving one of the engineering problems, something the judges should have known. But it was too late and his school had been disqualified.
          Then Jennifer came along. This year she was moving through two levels of advanced calculus that would put her ahead in college. He'd worked with her for the whole year and her brilliance excited him. She was also beautiful. Eventually, as he'd admitted to the principal, her brains and her beauty got to him. Buddy began imagining she was attracted to him, beyond the tutoring. After weeks of looking for confirmation where there was none, he'd pressed her up against the wall and tried to kiss her. When she screamed, he'd put his hand over her mouth. Of course, he hadn't really hurt her. They all knew that. But it didn't matter. It was too late.

Buddy looked around the bar and noticed that only he and Jasper were left. He looked up at the clock:  two a.m. Jasper lit a cigarette and came over and stood in front of him. Buddy looked down at his beer glass.
          "Football," he said. "Fuck it."
          Jasper held out his hand. Buddy pulled a fifty from his wad. Jasper walked away.
          Buddy thought about Christine. Maybe he should try to look her up again. He thought about the math fellowship. Maybe he could go back and get his Ph.D.
          He thought about the night he tried to break a bar stool across the pool table when the Packers lost the Super Bowl. Well, that was a fluke. He hadn't done anything like it before or since.
          He thought about the time he took off his shirt in front of one of Pete Tofte's women. She'd said he was "really gross." But then, she didn't know that at one time in his life he could bench press four hundred pounds. It really didn't matter anyway.
          He thought about Jennifer, felt his shirt pocket, and remembered he'd stopped smoking.
          He'd written his name in script on the napkin:  Gene Bartholomew Poulson. He could just add the date and the words, "I quit." But he knew England would have a typed resignation for him in the morning.

(Rodney Nelsestuen lives near St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife and daughter. In addition to "Late," he has written a memoir (My Father's Death), a novel (Too Many Stones), a short story series (Quiet Desperation), several other prose pieces, and poetry. Nelsestuen recently won an Honorable Mention in the Loft Literary Center's Mentor Series competition in Minneapolis. He has studied with outstanding authors, including Paulette Bates Alden, writer and essayist Carol Bly, and novelists Mary Gardner, Jonis Agee and Sandra Benitez. Currently at work on his second novel, he is a member of The Loft Literary Center and belongs to a Minneapolis writers group.)