(This story is fiction, but it’s an amalgamation of events I experienced in my younger years, while working labor jobs and trying to become a great road writer. I dedicate it to the real Lenny, Wes, Bill, and Amy…wherever you are. Chances you’ll ever read this are about nil, and I changed your names anyway, you goofy bastards.)
Lenny and Wes were out of their element and they knew it. The restaurant was one of those slick, uptown places where the food looks too nice to eat. Well-dressed business types pecked away at laptops while hipsters slouched arrogantly into their seats, flaunting the fact that they had nothing better to do.
Lenny and Wes sat at the very heart of the scene with tile grout and carpet glue spattered all over their faded jeans and tee shirts, studying their menus incredulously.
“What the hell’s with this menu?” Wes sneered. “All the food has something weird on it. They can’t just make a goddamn hamburger?”
“I like it,” Lenny drawled, eyeballing the women at their tables. “Classy broads.”
Wes shook his head. “That’s all you ever think about.”
“Women are nothing but trouble.”
Bryon grinned. “If you’re not in some kind of trouble, you’re not living.”
“When the hell is Bill getting here?”
As if on cue, Bill burst through the front door. Built like a cue ball with biceps, pale stomach poking out from beneath his tee shirt like an enormous hardboiled egg, he stopped inside the entryway and frantically scanned the tables. His left eye was haloed by a fresh, swollen bruise, and everyone in the restaurant turned to appraise the mad-looking character that had exploded into their midst. He located his friends and barreled towards them, oblivious to the fact that he nearly bowled over the hostess moving to intercept him.
Lenny laughed. “What the hell happened to your eye?”
“You didn’t hear?” Bill sat down. Beads of sweat peppered his forehead. “I might be going to prison. I probably am.”
“Getting your ass kicked is illegal now?” Wes smiled, revealing the dark lines between his teeth where his fillings showed through.
“I’m serious, man,” Bill said. “They’re charging me with assault. They say I’m probably going to do time.”
Lenny shrugged. “Won’t be the first time.”
“That’s why I don’t want to go back,” Bill pleaded. “I’m not a kid, anymore. I’ve got a business now. It’s not right. The guy was shooting his mouth off. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Nothing except forgetting to keep your hands up.”
Lenny and Wes chuckled.
The waitress came and took their orders. She was a redhead somewhere in her thirties, with wide hips curving nicely under her apron and a smile that hinted at all the best kinds of trouble. After taking their orders she asked if they needed anything else.
“Just your phone number,” Wes drawled.
She smiled. “In your dreams.”
Lenny nodded. “Alright. I’ll take a beer. Something dark.”
The waitress sauntered off and Lenny watched her all the way to the kitchen. “Now that’s a goddamn woman.”
She returned a few moments later with the beer and Lenny drained half his glass in one gulp. “On second thought, bring us a pitcher.”
Lenny looked to Wes and Bill. They shook their heads. “Just one.”
The waitress left to get the pitcher.
“We’ve got a job to do,” Wes said without much concern.
“Yea, well, maybe I’m done working for the day,” Lenny said. “Maybe I’ll have a few drinks right here and talk to that redhead some more. You guys get a look at her nametag?”
Bill shook his head. “I can’t believe I might be going to jail. Goddamn, it was just a fight.”
“Quit being so dramatic, you big baby.”
The waitress dropped off the pitcher and Lenny read her nametag. “Hello, Amy. What time do you get off?”
“Around five.” She cocked her head to the side and squinted suspiciously, “Why?”
“Can I buy you a drink at five-o-one?”
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “But then again, maybe not. Guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”
“I can make it to five o’clock. No problem.”
“I could be lying.” She shrugged again and walked away.
“I trust you.”
Amy smiled over her shoulder. “That was your first mistake.”
“Goddamn.” Lenny squirmed in his seat, panting as though on the verge of combustion. “That’s some kind of woman.”
“I watched Tombstone last night,” Bill said. “That’s a great movie.”
Wes nodded. “One of the best Westerns ever made.”
Lenny scoffed contemptuously, as though the truth of the statement was so obvious that it was sheer stupidity to even bother stating it.
“Things were so different in the Old West,” Bill mused. “If somebody called you a son of a bitch for no reason, you could step outside like two men and nobody did anything to stop it.”
Wes nodded. “If I could live in any time in history, I’d live in the Old West.”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Bill pointed at the air as though to punctuate his remark. “Things were different then. Men were men. They had a code of honor.”
“Hell yes, they had a code of honor,” Wes said. “All you had in those days was your damn gun and your honor.”
Bill leaned forward, his bruised eye growing wistfully. “If I was alive back then, I would have been a cowboy. A gunfighter. My face would be all leathery from the sun. I’d have a rifle over my shoulder and six shooters and spurs and all of that.”
“Real gunfighters didn’t wear spurs,” Wes interjected sagely. “Their enemies would hear them sneaking up on them if they did. And cowboys weren’t gunfighters. Cowboys worked for a living. The gunfighters were the outlaws and the lawmen.”
Bill waved the comment off and kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. In that moment, wide open plains, wild horses, and howling coyotes were almost visible in his eyes. “I don’t care about the gun fighting, man. I just mean that I would sleep under the stars and be free. I wouldn’t look for any fights, but if I had to fight, there wouldn’t be anybody there to tell me I was wrong.”
“Sounds good, but those times are long gone.” Wes nodded towards Lenny. “We got the flooring in that new bank almost finished. A week ahead of schedule. Ain’t that right, Lenny?”
“I guess.” Lenny looked around for the waitress. “What time is it?”
“Quarter to one.”
“I’m sticking around until five.”
“She’s putting you on, man,” Wes said. “Waitresses don’t get off at that time. I know–I was married to one for eight years. They switch out at like two or three, after lunch is over. She’ll split out the back door and leave you sitting here like a fool.”
Lenny waved him off. “What do you know? Amy isn’t your ex-wife.”
“I’ll bet she gets high rollers in this place asking her out every day. You think she wants to mess with some guy that’s covered in grout and drives a twenty-year-old pickup truck?”
“Maybe she’s looking for a little excitement.”
“Drinking beer with you qualifies as excitement?”
Lenny folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “Yes it does, my friend. Yes it does.”
Bill shook his head in sad wonder. “Goddamn, though, can you imagine living like that? Living free. Like a man.”
Wes’ eyes narrowed in reverie. “Yea, I think about it sometimes. Sometimes I think about it a lot. I would have liked to have been a cowboy. I mean a real cowboy, just moving horses, fixing fences, stuff like that.”
“That’s what I mean. Goddamn, a cowboy. None of this bullshit you’ve got today. Nobody breathing down your neck every minute with this paper or that paper.”
“You can still be a cowboy,” Lenny said. “In Wyoming I think it is. I saw it on TV.”
“It’s not the same,” Wes explained. “They use pickups and stuff and it’s mostly just to keep the family tradition alive. They move cattle on trucks and trains, now. Nobody really needs cowboys, anymore.”
Amy set their meals down and Lenny pointed at his watch. “You’re persistent,” she said.
“Yes I am.”
“Can you hold out until five o’clock?”
“I can hold out a lot longer than that for a woman like you.”
Amy covered her face in mock modesty and walked back to the kitchen laughing.
The three friends ate their meals and watched basketball highlights on the television behind the bar. They talked about the bookstore job and Bill’s night in a holding cell. After they were finished, Wes popped a toothpick in his mouth and said he was going back to work.
“I should get going, too,” Bill said. “Make some money while I can. Goddamn, I can’t believe I’m going to jail over this.”
“It’ll blow over,” Lenny said. “It’s not like you killed the guy.”
Wes and Lenny looked up and simultaneously. “Not yet?”
“He’s hurt pretty bad, I guess.” Bill looked down like a guilty child. “I feel bad about it, but he hit me first. He was shooting his mouth off and I asked him to step outside and he just hit me. Young guys, man, they never want to fight fair, anymore.” He shook his head at the sad state of the world. “It didn’t hurt. It left a bruise, but it didn’t hurt at all. I hit him with a right straight and he went down like a sack of shit.”
“You’re telling me you almost killed him with one punch?” Lenny asked. “I’ve seen your punches, and I doubt that.”
“No. I only knocked him down with one punch, but the back of his head hit that metal rail that you rest your feet on when you’re sitting at the bar. He’s still in the hospital.”
“Shit,” Lenny said.
The three friends fell into a long silence.
“Wait a minute.” Wes held up a finger and squinted in concentration, summoning the full might of his deductive powers. “Now, you said that you never laid a hand on him until he hit you first?”
Bill looked up hopefully, like a Death Row inmate just informed he was getting a new trial. “Of course not.”
“And after he punched you, all you did was punch him back?”
Bill held up his hands deferentially. “That’s all I did.”
Wes stroked his chin in thought while Bill waited for the verdict in wide-eyed anticipation. “It was self-defense with reasonable force,” Wes declared. “They can’t put you away for that.”
Bill let out a long sigh of relief. “I knew it. Thanks, man.” He reflected for a moment. “But, you know, it’s not even doing time that bothers me the most. I just can’t believe I might go at all. I mean, the guy started trouble with me. All I did was defend myself. A guy can’t even have a code of honor, anymore. The world just doesn’t make sense. Everybody’s gone crazy.”
Wes stood up from the table. “Yea, it’s all bullshit. But what are you going to do about it?”
“A man can’t just be a man, anymore. There’s just too much goddamn paperwork.”
Wes and Bill stood walked outside talking about Tombstone, the Old West, and codes of honor. Lenny checked his watch, settled into his seat, and drank his beer.
A few minutes later Amy came to clear the table. “You’re not going with your friends?”
“Nah,” Lenny answered. “All they ever do is talk about cowboys.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Amy asked. “All men love cowboys.”
“Amy,” Lenny said, draining another beer and holding up the pitcher for a refill, “I am a cowboy.”
Copyright 2018 Jeff Suwak