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Also by H. Lee Barnes:
Candescent | Changing Hands | Hueco Tanks | Tunnel Rat | Stonehands and the Tigress | A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley


The house had been perfect for three, but Hazleton was now one. One day a wife and son; the next day, empty rooms. No Edy, no Randy. He'd turned pictures upside down, stared at the newspaper, switched on his computer, then went and sniffed clothes in his closet to decide which needed cleaning. He was distracted, tried to keep his mind off the empty rooms until finally the void got to him. He turned on the car's engine and sat in the garage staring at the radio. How long would it take? he wondered. Carbon monoxide. He'd read somewhere, but he couldn't recall where, that suicide was the one sure antidote to loneliness. But he was not about to end his life, not with clothes to take to the cleaners. He'd just be filling emptiness with emptiness and someone else would find him and see the clothes in the backseat of his Prelude and think it pathetic—him and his dirty laundry.

Hazleton opened the automatic door, backed out, and drove for an hour aimlessly until he stopped at Starbuck's on West Sahara for coffee. A woman in line in front of him carried a Pomeranian. She was attractive, in her mid-thirties and seemed utterly unaware of anyone else as she cooed to her dog. He took his coffee outside. He looked around the patio and wondered what was the purpose in all of this. Certainly it wasn't coffee. It seemed everyone, especially those on cellular phones, was trying to fill his life with something tangible—conversation about his job and overpriced muffins and coffee so strong it coated the throat. Roles, illusion. Perhaps it was not illusion. A woman nearby spoke over a cellular. She talked about her son. Her voice was loud and insistent, anxious, as if the person on the end might lose a detail. Perhaps lives were completed here. Perhaps this wasn't a stage and they weren't actors. Perhaps, Hazleton thought, he was just bitter.

Being with others made him feel worse. He drank half his coffee and tossed the rest. He drove around again until he was downtown. Maybe, he thought, this will do me good. He parked by the old courthouse, old only by comparison, as nothing in Vegas was old, and strolled to Fremont street. He remembered the excitement he'd felt as a teenager when he drove up and down the famous street, tourists gazing at the neon and kids in cars honking and waving to one another. He'd not yet witnessed the phenomenon called The Fremont Street Experience.

From 5th Street he looked to where Fremont intersected Main. It was a mall now, a footpath for quarter slot players and panhandlers. The glitter gone, like Edy, like Randy. The Experience proved, in daylight, no experience at all. Laser lights. Technology. He looked at the canopy screening the sky and tops of hotels from view and shook his head. He recalled cruising here as a teenager, the hunger of hormones, slow rides west from the Blue Onion up Fremont to Main Street and the old Union Pacific train station, talking to girls in their parents' station wagons, passing open cans of beer back and forth, car to car. That had been an experience.

He felt lost in the town he'd called home for forty-six years. He strolled east down Fremont, where a few landmarks remained from his youth. The El Cortez. He'd puked on the carpet in the lobby graduation night. To the north on Ogden Street was the Orbit Inn, where in 1966 an awol soldier had fired a pistol into sticks of dynamite, killing himself and three others. Hazleton had been a sophomore then at Las Vegas High, which was now Las Vegas Academy, a school for theater arts—no football, no pep rallies. He remembered the sick feeling in his stomach when he'd driven by the crumbled cinder blocks of the Orbit Inn. The sensation was easy to recall now because that was exactly what he'd felt two weeks ago when he came home to an empty house. How long had she planned it? How carefully?

It was warm and clear, a pleasant day. Though he was beginning to sweat, he was enjoying the walk. As he walked he thought about watching table action, reviewing video tapes from surveillance cameras. For years he'd looked through mirrors that were windows. He saw an irony in that, for people looking up at the ceiling would see themselves, not as he saw them but the opposite. He was a spy of sorts, a voyeur privy to the silent drama of gambling. He watched hands and scrutinized details, counted cards and totaled roulette payoffs, constantly looking for something irregular. Except on Fridays and Saturdays when Lisa doubled back from the morning shift, he worked alone, sitting on a catwalk with opera glasses or in front of the three dozen monitors that scanned the casino. He was worth his paycheck and more.

Traffic moved steadily in both directions. Car tires whistled on the pavement. Noise and movement were welcome. How long had it been since he'd walked on a busy street? Home to work in his Honda with the air conditioner blowing cool air on his face. Every other week he'd taken Edy out for dinner, on Wednesday, their one day off together. Those were supposed to be romantic nights, but more often than not they returned home and Edy brushed her teeth and went straight to bed, while he stayed up and tried to find an interesting chatroom or tinkered with the computer or watched television. On alternate Wednesdays, he took Randy to a movie or Lake Mead or Mt. Charleston, while Edy took guitar lessons. He never talked about work. Why bother. No one cared. It was a paycheck. But he'd remember the drama in the casino below, play it out in his mind, trying to read lips or expressions as piles of chips passed back and forth in a never-ending tug-of-war.

He'd come to accept that dim, silent world where often the only words spoken in a week's time were over direct lines to the casino floor or the security office. Except for the highest levels of management, no one knew him by sight. His meals were delivered by room service on a tray outside the monitor room. He urinated and washed his hands in a private bathroom. He rarely engaged in small talk, even with Lisa, and only once or twice with Jules Arberg, his boss. Below the catwalk rose a constant clatter, slot machines, music, human voices. But it was all one muted noise as it passed through the ceiling into his work world.

He'd separated life into work and home, silence and sound. He pictured his son and him together frozen in time as they watched the images on the screen. He'd thought of that as closeness. Now there was no son, but the rest was the same, just a shifting of setting. He ended up alone. He'd walked for twenty minutes and was thinking about turning around, going home. Perhaps turning on the computer.

Near 15th Street Hazleton found himself standing in front of a bar named Candescent. Its door was painted black and the facing was brick, and he remembered it from years before by another name he couldn't recall. Now it was wedged between a topless club and souvenir store. Surrendering to an impulse, Hazleton opened the door. For the first time in nine years he ventured into a bar, a downtown bar at that. With a name like Candescent, why not?

It smelled of beer and cigarette smoke, air stale as pie crust left out overnight. A shaft of light from the street spread out on the bar top like a pool of burnished liquid. Voices hummed. A slot machine handle cranked down and up again. The bartender squinted in Hazleton's direction and told him to shut the door. The customers, eyes lustrous as smudged chrome, seemed to shrink away from the light. Hazleton stepped in and let the door close. After taking a moment to adjust to the thin light, he headed to a stool at the bar and ordered a rum and tonic with a twist, a drink he'd ordered in the days before Edy and he married. The bartender set the drink in front of Hazleton and asked if he wanted a tab run.

"Fine," Hazleton said. He wanted to keep conversation to a minimum. He refused to be one of those who after a few drinks starts telling his woe-is-me to a bartender. He needed to be out of the house was all. No conversation, nothing about Edy leaving, nothing about her or a lover, or a seven-year-old boy and an empty house. Trash talk.

Hazleton noticed a Karaoke mike and speakers on a stage. This was what he needed, this would fit the bill, people singing off-key renditions of Presley or Joplin. That would keep his mind occupied. Yeah. Anything. Last Friday Lisa had suggested a support group to talk his way though the breakup and restore his self-esteem. Hazleton had thought it an interesting but cynical idea, the notion of a divorce recovery group. Twelve steps to what? Another marriage? Lisa was a fine video analyst, but a slave to pop psychology. None of that for Hazleton. Rum and tonic and some bozo singing "Heartbreak Hotel" off key was therapy enough. He'd get back to his old self. But what old self? How far did he have to go to revert to what he had been?

"When does the Karaoke start?" Hazleton asked the bartender.

A woman two seats down turned and looked at him, as did the man beside her.

"Karaoke?" the bartender said.

Hazleton's eyes had adjusted to the dim light, so he could read the name monogrammed on the bartender's shirt—Brady. Hazleton pointed to the stage. "Yeah, when does it start?"

"You've never been here before?"

"No." Hazleton wondered how his life had dovetailed into this moment. Karaoke!

The bartender nodded, then glanced at the woman and man who'd turned to see Hazleton. There was a moment of silence and ice swirling as they looked at their drinks.

"Starts in a few minutes," the bartender said. "You ready for another?"

Hazleton downed the drink and nodded. Conversation dropped to a murmur. Hazleton saw that besides himself, a cocktail waitress, and the bartender there were perhaps twelve people in the room. One man sat on a stool in front of a slot machine and cranked the handle down, slowly and mechanically, as if working a machine on an assembly line. The others sat mostly alone at tables or in booths. Except for one couple and those seated at the bar, none were paired up. Hazleton felt as if he were outside looking in.

He sipped the second drink. Slowly a woman sitting in a booth on the other side of the bar slid out of her seat and walked to the stage. Hazleton imagined that she looked the way Edy might in few years, slender, tallish, straight backed. She wore a floral print silk dress that covered her to her ankles. Her skin was bone white and smooth, and her dark hair was long and rolled on the top of her head, exaggerating her high cheekbones. She might have been older than he first suspected, maybe fifty-five, he guessed. She carried a cigarette in her left hand. With her right, she clasped the microphone, tapped it gently with the cigarette hand, and asked if Brady could hear it.

"We hear ya, Angie," the bartender said.

"Go, gal," the woman two seats down said.

Hazleton signaled for a third drink. He wondered what she was going to sing. Probably some bad Julie London or worse, he figured. She took a long draw on the cigarette, rested it in an ashtray, and exhaled as she held the microphone to the side. A drift of cigarette smoke snaked across the space. Hazleton noticed that she was an older Natalie Wood, had the star lived.

"Lights," she said.

Brady flipped a switch below the bar, and the stage went black. She stood as if behind a curtain and placed the microphone near her mouth. The man playing the slot machine stopped.

"My name's Angie. I've got a story," she began. "I was twenty-seven and living in the Hollywood Hills. I could look out and see the city at night, lights strung out like ten thousand dreams. Miles of them. One was mine . . . ."

“What is this?" Hazleton asked as the bartender set the drink down.

"Schuss, listen," Brady said.

Angie talked about being a woman in a soap ad and diving in a blue lagoon for a travel commercial. She looked too much like Natalie Wood, a tall Natalie. She spent years living on hope, auditioning but never getting the parts. She talked about trips to Europe with a movie producer who went unnamed. Occasionally she'd pause to smoke. Her porcelain cheekbones glowed as she sucked on the cigarette. The bar was silent. She said her career led to her starring in two porno films. She was from Pocatello, where hard work, basic Christianity, and homemade bread fed the population, but somehow the film circulated around the town and her father saw it. He killed himself. At age twenty-seven she dived off a pier in Santa Monica, wanted to die as Natalie Wood had.

"I looked like her. That was my curse. It's important to look like yourself."

The woman stepped off the stage and hurried to her booth, where she quickly downed her drink. The bar flattened into silence. Hazleton realized that he'd not thought about Edy for the entire time Angie was on stage. One and two at a time her audience softly applauded. Hazleton motioned to Brady, who had just turned the stage lights on.

"What is this?” he asked.

“A bar, people,” Brady said. “It's always been this way.”

But Hazleton knew better. It had been a different bar. He shook his head. He remembered the bar now. It had a different name. It seemed important for Hazleton to let Brady know that. “When I was a kid, this place was robbed. A man was killed, a customer. He was trying to get out of the bar because he was on parole and didn't want to go back to prison.”

“Maybe you've come to the wrong bar,” Brady said.

“It's the place, all right,” Hazleton said.

Brady placed a bowl of peanuts in front of Hazleton. “Here, nibble on these and nurse that drink.” He smiled at Hazleton.

A man stood up from his stool and nodded to Brady, who nodded in return. He was a big stoop-shouldered man, balding but not yet bald, and like Angie, in his fifties. Hands in his pockets, he labored to the stage, quickly lifted the mike, and turned his back to the audience. Brady shut off the lights.

This time there was no cigarette, just a wide shadow that shifted about uncomfortably as the man spoke. His name was Allen Tate, and he'd played professional football, a center, he said.

“Hiding your hands is like hiding your face,” he said. He talked about his hands, how over the years they'd been pulverized and were now mutilated. He hated to have people see them. The sight of them, he maintained, made others uncomfortable. The rest of his body was broken up as well but it was his hands, he insisted, his hands. “I can't hold two cards without bending them. I spill milk when I hold a glass. I drink bourbon though a straw. But don't feel sorry for me. Some people try, but it's a waste. I was almost an All-American. I married a fine woman. You'd like her a lot. Everyone does. Now I'm just a man. What I wish is that I could feel her face without feeling pain in my fingers. That's all.”

As the old athlete stepped down from the stage, Brady turned on the lights. The man's hands were buried deep in his pockets. Hazleton wanted to ask exactly what kind of bartender Brady was and what kind of bar this was, but something more pressing was on his mind.

A woman in her mid-twenties mounted the platform. She was short and wore a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. She said she was Emma and didn't mind if people looked at her. Brady left the stage lights on. She paced back and forth on the ten-by-ten-foot platform, her head down, never facing the audience. She had hit a million-dollar jackpot at age twenty-one. It was gone. As she paced she listed the many ways that it had gone—bad investments, booze, cocaine, clothes. Desperate to keep her boyfriend, she'd given the last of it to him.

"He took it and ran. Did me a favor. I work construction, flagging traffic, and I got me a horse. I'm done. Don't applaud.” She walked to her table and took a businesslike drink from her glass.

Hazleton felt an impulse to talk about the bar's past, to say that places have stories as well, like the Orbit Inn. But places can't tell their stories. He called Brady over.

Brady looked at Hazleton's half-full glass. “Bit early for another drink,” he said.

Hazleton remembered holding a girl's hand in Lorenzi Park as she cried. He'd wiped her tears away and the next day had escorted her to the funeral. “That guy who got shot,” Hazleton said, “I dated his niece. He wasn't a bad guy. He killed a man in a car accident and . . .”

" . . . I know the story,” Brady said.

Brady was no more than thirty himself. Hazleton shook his head.

"You couldn't have been more than three years old then.”

"Two. I was two. Quiet now. This is Gus. You have to hear Gus.”

“But . . .”

Brady raised his finger for silence. Hazleton nodded and turned to the stage.

“My name's Gus. You know me, sort of. I died and came back, they say. I've had a woman's heart in me for eleven years. I didn't know that young woman. She didn't know me. A stranger gives a stranger life. Maybe some of you would say I don't have much of a life. Could be.”

Hazleton recognized the slot player, who'd been pulling the handle until the . . . whatever this was began. He was in his seventies, Hazleton figured, the retired golfer type, fueled by hot air but harmless. It was obvious he was nervous or suffered from some kind of palsy as his hand trembled when he took the microphone.

“I landed soldiers on Normandy. June the sixth, year of our Lord nineteen and forty-four. Couldn't tell if they were throwin' up from the choppy waters or fear or both. Some of them were prayin', and so was I to tell the truth. Guess what you had to do in those days was clearer than it is today. I don't know what else to say. I lived a long time since, but that's what I remember. Thank you."

The woman at the bar said, “You're a good man, Gus.”

The old man walked back to his stool without comment, took a quarter out of the tray, slipped it in the slot, and pulled the handle. The woman at the bar patted her companion's leg and stepped away. The man watched her walk toward the stage as if he were a boy watching a parade. She glanced at Hazleton as she stepped on the stage and winked. "Don't expect much," she said.

"What's that mean?" Hazleton asked Brady as the woman settled herself before the mike stand.

"You'll see."

Hazleton was bewildered by what he was witnessing. These were the people who sat at the tables he watched—tops of heads, hands holding cards—the ordinary people whom he'd watched over the years. What urge? What had pulled them away from their games and brought them to Candescent to give voice to their—what? Despair. "What started this?" he asked.

Brady shrugged. "Does it matter? Listen." He stepped away.

"I'm Laura." She seemed to pick Hazleton out of the bar to look at.

"I left my husband twelve years ago, left him because it was a dead end. We had a house, two cars, a daughter, a dog, a few debts, the American dream." She stood with both hands behind her back and leaned into the microphone as she looked at Hazleton.

Hazleton stared back as she described her life then, the routine of work and housework, of running errands, picking the right coffee for breakfast, and hurrying to beauty appointments. She said the worst thing of all was that as she began to sabotage the marriage, her husband never complained. He'd become a slave to complacence, and that terrified her. All the while she spoke, she looked at Hazleton and he at her. Complacence is so easy to fall into, Hazleton thought.

"He was a decent man, never abusive, never cruel. I had no particular complaint, except that I felt I was . . . dead already. One day I packed my car, drew out half of the cash from our accounts, quit my job, took my daughter, and left with another man. I didn't love that man. He didn't love me. He was my way of making the break absolute. I'd like to have a drink now. Thank you."

She winked again at Hazleton as if to ease his thoughts. Had his crime been complacence? For an instant it seemed she was Edy in another body, just as the story seemed to be Edy's story. Then Laura rushed down from the stage and into the arms of the man waiting at the bar. Hazleton swallowed hard. He knew with absolute certainty that Edy was gone for good, that his life was demarcated by her leaving. There would be the time before her and the time since. He wondered where she was and if she understood as he now did.

"You ready for another?” Brady asked.

“Another? Yes. Tell me. What is this?”

“It explains itself," Brady said. “Rum and tonic?”

For a long while the bar was silent except for the slot handle grinding, the clatter of ice against glass, and the occasional flaring of a cigarette lighter. No one mounted the stage. Hazleton sat bowed forward, his head over his drink which he swirled about without tasting. He'd spent much of his life bent over some desk examining videos or over a one-way glass watching table action in a casino. It was tedious work that required attention, too much attention to details, things less trained eyes wouldn't see. He'd spent much of his life watching others and had overlooked the details of his own life. How much of Randy's life had he missed already? He wanted to hear Randy's voice. That seemed important. Edy would understand. She wouldn't be hard about that. He'd fix Randy's room up, and they'd sit on the bed and talk and talk. Or see movies. Yes. Hazleton could do that.

Brady stood before him and coughed to get his attention.

“Do you need more time?”

“Time?” Hazleton asked.

“Yes. They're waiting, you know.”

“For me.”

“You. It's easy. Go on ahead,” Brady said, his voice friendly and soothing.

“But what would I say?”

Brady shrugged.

Hazleton could leave. The door was only a few feet away. Surely he could leave. He looked around the bar. Eyes gazed back. Folks smiled. Or did they? He should leave now, he thought. They couldn't stop him. But something was keeping him there.

“The girl's name,” he said, “the one whose uncle was killed here, it was Germaine. We called her Jerry.”

“I know,” Brady said. “They're waiting.”


“Yes. The first time's the hardest.”

Hazleton took a deep breath and slipped off the barstool. It was a short walk to the stage, but a shorter one to the door. He hesitated. He seemed lost. Words were shaping themselves inside his head. He wondered what his story was. Did he have one? A real story?

"Go on," Brady said. "You're doing fine."

Hazleton moved one foot then the next, again and again until he had to step up to mount the stage. The bar seemed lighter here, as if there were candescent lights in every comer. He took his position behind the microphone. But again he hesitated.

"Go ahead, son," the old sailor on the slot machine said.

As he reached for the mike, Hazleton recalled the incident at the Orbit Inn. What was the soldier's story, the real one that ticked inside him? What was anyone's story for that matter. Edy's story? There seemed to be one in Hazleton now, but it was clogged inside his throat like a great flow of water contained by a plug. He held the mike and looked out, and as he did, he thought of people gathered around a fire and the cadence of the human voices blending with the sounds of night and moments of silence followed by nodding approvals—the way it once was when the heart and mind were joined at the tongue.

He saw Laura, who winked, and her companion, who gave Hazleton thumbs up. Hazleton took a shallow breath and said, "My name's Patrick." He knew then that he must empty himself to fill himself again. When he began it came out, not like a geyser from a fireplug but in a slow, steady stream of words that gathered themselves into a small but urgent flow.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of CLR

H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada. His fiction has appeared in several literary journals, most recently in Clackamas Literary Review and Echoes, and two stories are forthcoming in Flint Hills Review. In 1997 he won the Clackamas Literary Review fiction award and in 1991 the Arizona Authors Association award for the short story. Gunning for Ho, his collection about Vietnam, has just been released from the University of Nevada Press.

You can find H. Lee Barnes on the web at:
—  Arizona State University Creative Writing
—  Printed Matter
—  Gunning for Ho
—  Boston Review
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

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