Geography Lesson excerpt from Headshots:
Cleveland finished his beer, produced a raw belch, and then motioned for the bartender to bring another. A thin haze of smoke spiraled upward from the cigarette in his hand like some lost soul seeking refuge in a darkened heaven. The neon Budweiser clock on the wall said it was almost three p.m. and the place was as dead as any other in that washed-up town. Pool tables and poker machines sat like neglected toys in the suffocating dimness as country music, old and familiar, mingled with the sounds of clinking glasses and the errant buzzing of flies. A few people with nothing better to do sat on bar stools and stared dumbly at the soundless television above the bar, reminding Cleveland how empty life was without form and purpose.
The man across from him, Kemper, said, “I done told you.” Kemper wore a dark blue work shirt that strained for closure over his impressive belly. Less than twenty years before he’d been one hell of a football player in high school, more freight train than linebacker. But all hints of athleticism had long since been lost to the deep-fried thickness that covered him like a dull costume. Even still, his heavy-jowled face could not conceal the fact that there was still a handsome man lurking beneath the added flesh and years.
Cleveland, stiff-backed and erect, put his elbows on the table, hunched his shoulders forward as was his habit and said, “Horseshit.”
Unlike his companion, Cleveland’s body wasn’t meaty, and his short sleeved shirt revealed long arms ropy with muscle. Average height and weight, he had once been described as rangy, kind of like a tough chicken, not scrawny, just rangy. He’d been this way as a boy and he was this way now at sixty-two. His buzz cut had turned a steel gray color but his eyes were still sharp and his ears caught everything. About the only thing that reminded him he was an old man were his charcoal colored lungs which the doctor swore were about ready to give out.
“I know what you said, I know it. But it ain’t true. Not one damn word of it.” Cleveland pulled a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his gray t-shirt. “You might be pretty good with a monkey wrench, but you’re one ignorant bastard.”
“Ah hell, why’d you want to say something like that?” Kemper scratched at his beer label and frowned. “I saw the map and everything. His route was marked in red, right down through Mexico and Honduras, through Central America all the way to Argentina and Chile and back. All on that old Kawasaki.”
“First off, that bike of his can’t go half a mile without crapping out. Secondly, Lem Pearson is just as broke as you and me, broker probably, and last of all the man ain’t never even been out of the state of Ohio.” Cleveland snorted and took a drink. “Kind of like you.”
Kemper shook his head and when he grinned two dimples appeared on both sides of his mouth. “Here it comes. World War II, Korea, Vietnam...”
“That’s right son. I hit the last year of World War II when I was just sixteen, lied about my age just so’s I wouldn’t miss it. And for the record I did two tours in ‘Nam.” Cleveland’s voice, which was usually abrupt and harsh, changed whenever he spoke of his military career. His words became more important, ringed with pride and respect, perhaps even a little awe at what he had accomplished.
“Hell, I served for thirty years. Ain’t nobody around here got shit on me. I been places you can’t even pronounce, seen things you ain’t even imagined, things that’d make your drawers turn turd-brown right now if I was to tell you.”
“But Lem said--”
“But Lem said,” Cleveland sneered. “If you knew anything at all you’d know that North America and South America ain’t even connected. It’s like him saying he rode his bike from California to Hawaii or from Florida to Cuba. There’s no way.”
Kemper lifted the ratty, grease-streaked ball cap from his head and scratched his shaggy brown hair. He thought for a moment and then crammed the cap back in place, causing the thick ends of his hair to stick out from his square head. “I don’t know, Cleveland. I think it’s all connected, North and South America. All of it.”
“I’ll say it again – Horseshit!” Cleveland slammed his fist on the weathered table causing the collection of empty beer bottles to jump.
Kemper pushed his shirt sleeves up his thick, hairy arms then crossed them over the top of his belly. “Just ‘cause you been in the military don’t mean you know everything. It don’t mean everyone else is a moron.”
Cleveland leaned closer, his eyes glinted. “Yeah? So tell me Einstein where did the Titanic go down?”
“The Titanic? What? You’re testing me now?” Kemper sighed heavily and rubbed the back of his neck, avoiding Cleveland’s intense glare. Kemper looked like a little boy who’d been called on in class, and Cleveland enjoyed watching him squirm. Finally, Kemper hitched his thumb over his shoulder. “It sunk up north.”
“Yeah? Where up north? Lake Michigan? Canada? The North Pole?”
“Hell, everyone knows it was the Atlantic,” Kemper scowled, “over by Alaska.”
Cleveland said, “Alaska, huh?” and Kemper nodded his head uncertainly. Cleveland turned and looked over his shoulder towards the bar. He said, “Lily, honey, can you tell Einstein here where Alaska’s located?”
A girl perched on a barstool glanced up from the magazine she was reading. She wore a yellow tank top with pink butterflies, denim shorts and looked to be around eight, no more than nine years old. Her long blonde hair hung limply around her shoulders; her thin legs were white against the dark bar which her flip-flopped feet kicked in a slow rhythm. She twisted an earring absently as she thought. “It’s in the Pacific,” she began tentatively, her voice small and shaky at first but then firmer when she added, “near Russia.”
“Thank you, honey.” Lily turned back to her magazine and Cleveland turned back to Kemper. “Pretty pathetic. My little girl knows more about it than you. So next time just keep your trap shut about things you don’t have any knowledge of.” Cleveland took a drink and added, “And that would be most things.”
Kemper’s face reddened and his breathing grew deep. He muttered something under his breath. Cleveland’s tilted beer paused before his waiting mouth. “What was that?”
Kemper leaned back in his chair pulled a cigarette from the pack on the table before him. “Said bet she’s learned all kinds of things this summer, sitting up in this bar with her old man. Anyone ever tell you little kids ain’t ‘sposed to be hanging out in bars? What kind of father,”
Before Kemper could say another word he was on his back on the floor with the edge of the table pressing into his soft throat, staring red-faced and bug-eyed at Cleveland, gurgling for help as his arms waved uselessly at his side.
“Tell me again how to raise my kid, Goddammit! Go on, tell me!” Cleveland pressed the table harder, pushing his rage into Kemper, cutting off his air, choking him. “I’ll kill you,” Cleveland whispered fiercely. “I’ll take the very life from you, you filthy mongrel.”
It took three men to pull Cleveland back and toss him out the door. He picked himself up from the ground and brushed the gravel from his skin and clothes. It wasn’t the first time he’d been shown the way out of a bar, and he thrilled a little in knowing he could still stir things up, even if the Marines didn’t have any use for him anymore.
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