Brutus

BRUTUS
Lane Kareska
Issue No. 8 – June 2015

Zero Fahrenheit outside and Jake is determined to flood his system with rye whiskey soon as he sets foot inside the Brokenwrist Lodge.

The wind’s just out-and-out mean, sawing against his head, slipping beneath the cuffs of his jacket. The howling Alaskan gale rips at the skin of his face.

Brutus, Alaska.

Sun ain’t even down yet.

He grabs a hold of that frost-sticky door handle and yanks. A grip of suction seals the door tight, but Jake tugs hard and steps into the safety of the bar with a swirl of white light and snow, like some angel come down to protect and save or to sit and join the ragged few at the zinc-top bar. The door whips in behind him and the light and heaven and snow-roar shut off. Sad, tinkling Christmas music murmurs from a speaker. The smell of mold thickens with each step into the lounge.

Old Carl stoops behind the bar and rubs a rag against a glass.

Carl nods at Jake and Jake can’t tell if the look is bitter or not. It seems a little bitter.

“Jake,” Carl says.

“Hiya, boss.” Jake sits down, pulls off his gloves and jams them in his coat pockets.

“Your usual?” Carl says.

Jake, almost delirious now for that drink, slaps the bar top and says, “Yessir, that’ll be fine.”

Carl doesn’t trust Jake and Jake knows it. Jake, at twenty-two, is about a thousand years younger than Carl. But that’s not the reason.

Last week Jake did get a little out of hand again. Jake doesn’t remember the details but he knows it’s true. Something about the jukebox. Did he kick it? Best not to think about it. It’s probably water under the bridge. Bartenders are used to people making a little bit of an ass out of themselves from time to time. They should be anyway.

Carl pours a shooter of Beam and Jake’s night begins.

Jake drains a few and pretty soon his head is all alight. His lungs feel like they’re blooming anew inside him. It feels good. It’s what he comes here for.

After the dinner hour the locals start to pile in.

Jake leans on his elbow like an apostle at the Last Supper, except he’s jawing to Mandy, who tends bar here herself when it isn’t her night off.

Jake talks about the music he’s paid the jukebox to play. Johnny Cash. David Bowie. Johnny Cash again. He’s proud of his choices. Talking about it like Jake himself composed the song. Hell, in a town of nine hundred what’s the difference? Jake might as well be Cash.

Jake falls silent when his eyes alight on the old guy across the room. He’s a stocky man with gray blonde hair and a cragged face.

Jake stops dead cold.

“What?” Mandy says. “What’s your problem?”

“Who is that?” Jake says, jutting his chin at the old guy.

Mandy scrunches her face up real good to see through the smoke and bar-light. She shrugs. She doesn’t know. “Maybe he’s in from Yellowknife?” she suggests.

That ain’t it.

“I know him,” Jake says. “I know that sumbitch.”

***

His mother named him Jake after the doctor that delivered him. As far as namesakes are concerned, Jake guesses there were few male contenders.

Jake’s not from Alaska. Not at all.

Jake was born in Texas. The other big state. He doesn’t know which is bigger.

Texas is its own country, his brother used to say. Its own country with its own deep languages and awful tribes. Jake was born in Lunsun. His mother already had a son, William David — BD — and he was already nine when Jake was born.

Mom did her best. She’s had it hard. No parents of her own, a string of bad boyfriends a mile long, more baggage than an airline.

She raised BD in Jurvis, then moved to Lunsun just before Jake arrived. She worked at the Tuckery’s Doughnut Shack all through Jake’s kindergarten, first and second grade. She landed a waitressing job at the country club and BD and Jake went to school. She stripped at night. Jake knows that now, but did not then.

She met the Frog at the strip club, not at the country club like she said — BD told him that years later. The Frog was what they called him, but his real name was Fred Francis Fuller and they named him the Frog for the Fr sound, yes, but mostly for the broadness of his face, the meanness of his eyes and the slack-loose skin of his throat. He was a prickly iron worker from McShale. Mom and Frog got married and moved into his narrow two-story townhouse between the highway and a Circle K.

Jake didn’t really have an opinion about the Frog one way or the other. Frog never said much to Jake and Jake never had a real reason to say anything to Frog. Only remarkable thing about Frog was that he kept a little room in the basement decorated with framed prints of WWII aircrafts. He had a few standing mannequins dressed in authentic military uniforms. BD and Jake were banned from the basement but they stole in every so often to play among the frozen soldiers saluting in the shadows.

One winter, BD and Jake played hide and seek in the house. It was cold outside. Not as cold as it gets in Brutus but cold enough to keep two kids indoors. Mom boiled the water for mac and cheese in the kitchen.

Frog came home from work and didn’t say a word. He removed his union jacket and hung it in the front closet. He wore his glasses. Real fleshy face. Almost no personality to look at. He stepped out of his shoes and marched upstairs and that was it. BD and Jake continued their game.

Jake sat on the living room couch, planted his face in the cushions and began counting aloud to fifty. BD scrambled away and stomped up the stairs. When Jake finished counting he knew BD was still up there because he hadn’t heard him come down. Jake zipped up the stairs and searched their shared room. Not there, not in the closet. He checked the bathroom, behind the shower curtain, even the cabinet beneath the sink.

Jake supposes he should have known better, but he opened the Frog’s bedroom door and there Frog stood, in front of his bed, alone, totally naked. He just stood there, looking at the floor. Jake still has no idea what he was doing exactly. In that split second, Jake saw the Frog’s whole body. His round, pale gut. His stubby, fat dick. Everything. Actually, come to think of it, Jake thinks Frog was still wearing his glasses.

Jake’s stomach knotted up and, unthinking, he looked down at the floor too, as if he were trying to find the same thing Frog was looking at. Frog said nothing. Jake muttered, “Sorry,” and shuffled out of the bedroom. Jake shut the door behind him.

Frog spoke: “Jake.”

What would you have done? Frog was calling him back in there. Jake was eight.

Jake opened the door again and put his head in, but kept his eyes on the floor. Now, Jake guesses he’d assumed Frog had put his clothes on but still, Jake didn’t want to look.

“Look at me, Jake,” Frog said.

Jake slowly tipped his head back up at Frog, and there he was, had not moved an inch. Just standing there all strange and naked and pitiful and powerful. Didn’t even cover himself.

“Jake,” Frog said. “I don’t know how you did it at your old homes. But at this house, we knock before we open doors.”

“Okay,” Jake said. “Sorry.”

“Look at me.”

Frog held eye contact with him. Just made him stand there. Jake didn’t know what was happening.

“Okay,” Frog said. “You can go.”

Jake ran out of that room and shut the door behind him. He trampled down the stairs with his heart hammering in his chest. Jake gave up on BD. Let him hide.

***

Jake stands and pushes his barstool back behind him. Make a fuckin’ kid stand there.

He swaggers over to the old guy and gets down real low in his crinkled face.

“You remember me?” Jake says to the old man.

The old man looks over at the customer beside him and rolls his eyes, as if to say, another drunk local lookin’ for trouble. It’s that kind of attitude that ratchets Jake’s rage all the way up.

Jake stands back and says, “Mister, I’d like a word with you outside.”

The old man brushes Jake off and says, “Honey, piss up a rope.”

Old Carl pipes up from behind the bar, “Jake, get the heck outta here. Leave the customers alone.”

The old guy grins, “Yeah, Jake. Leave me alone.”

Oh, so he is looking for trouble.

Jake juts out his index and middle fingers together and drives ‘em straight into the old man’s Adam’s apple. The motion — he hasn’t planned this — is similar to the way you might pop a balloon or point to an X on a map. “I’ll leave you alone when I—”

Jake doesn’t get to finish his sentence. The old man stands and slaps Jake broad across the face. Slaps him like a child.

Jake’s face burns. He is so insulted he cannot react. His ear howls like someone’s blown a whistle into it. The flesh of his cheek is hot with pain and embarrassment. He’s been made speechless.

The old man reaches back, balls up a fist and delivers into Jake’s nose. The bone pops aloud and hot blood pours all down Jake’s chin, fills his mouth. Where is all this blood coming from? he wonders.

Jake and the old man tangle up and go down hard on the floor. Customers scream and call out.

The Johnny Cash song ends.

The old man wrestles like an Olympian. Every knuckle, elbow and dig of his chin is spring-loaded and tough tough tough. He’s a mean sumbitch.

Jake’s thoughts cut out when the old man gathers up a handful of his greasy hair and jerks Jake’s head upward once — then slams it down into the hardwood.

Jake is lights out for five seconds maybe. Ten, tops.

He comes to as Mandy and Carl peel him from the ground.

Carl rants to Mandy that he’s “had it up to here with this a-hole” and Jake “ain’t never allowed anywhere f’ing near here again.” Mandy nods and mutters some apologies for her kind-of friend.

Jake collects himself, shakes his head to clear the foam that’s filled his skull. His nose aches — broken and all twisted up on his face. Hot anger still flashes in the raw lobes of his brain. It got handed to Jake good. And public too. And by an old guy.

The old man drops money on his table and pushes out the front door. He’s had it. He’s leaving.

Well, to hell with that.

Jake fights out of Mandy and Carl’s grip. He goes after his man.

“Jake!” Mandy calls.

But he’s already at the door — kicks it open and shouts, “Hey! Come get yours!”

The tundra glows blue in the moonlight. The screaming wind shears layers of icy snow from the ground, paints a ghostlike fog on the visible rim of land in all directions. Brutus, Alaska might as well be the top of the world.

The old man stands at his rig: a mammoth Chevy, a broad and bent snowplow bolted across its grill like a jawbone. He’s got his keys in the door — so close to leaving. He looks back at Jake and the expression on his seamy face is a smug kind of annoyed. The look says to Jake: Didn’t I clean your clock already?

Jake marches in the snow and ice toward the Chevy. He squeezes his fists, squints his eyes, steels himself. He’s ready to kick some ass. The night wind pierces the canals of his ears and gnaws at the exposed skin of his face. Temperature is probably negative thirty and Jake left his coat in the bar.

The old man shoves his car keys back into his pocket and starts his walk toward Jake.

It is clear to each man that they will make war in this parking lot.

Jake slips on a spit of ice. Maybe it’s the alcohol, or the cold, or the dizziness still fresh in his head from his most recent beating — whatever it is, Jake goes down hard. His legs fly up and his head shoots straight down. Skull. Ice.

Reeling on the ground, Jake’s just vaguely aware that this hasn’t stopped the old man. He kneels down right beside Jake and drives fist after fist into Jake’s head. Between each punch, Jake catches a clear glimpse of the man’s swollen face and Jake thinks: I’m not so sure this is the Frog after all.

***

Jake would like to say that the Frog was arrested for child abuse, child pornography, back taxes, whatever, but no. What happened wasn’t actually Frog’s fault, though BD and Jake both wished it was.

They lived with him there for another four or five years. Quite a while, actually. Jake was a student at the local junior high. One day in November, Mom disappeared. Just didn’t come home. Frog responded to this by unbuttoning his work shirt, cracking open a Stag and flipping on the television. In the morning, it was BD that called the police.

For three days, she was a Missing Persons Report.

When the police called and said she’d been found, Frog had already packed his bags. He’d had enough, he said. To hell with it. Didn’t need the drugged-out wife. Didn’t need her white-trash kids.

Mom returned the same day the For Rent sign went up in the yard. Her eyes were glassy and she walked and spoke a hair slower than they’d ever seen. She explained to Jake and BD that she’d been kidnapped. Held captive by some customers from the laundromat she’d begun working at a few months earlier. The customers had kept her locked up and they’d done things to her.

It was years later that BD explained to Jake what really happened. Mom was partying with these men — smoking their rock and she’d run out of money. For three days she traded her body for rock.

The Frog left her. Mom, BD and Jake moved into an apartment downstate. Mom worked in a kitchen in a rest home and spent a lot of her time in a recovery program.

BD left his job at the batting cages and enlisted in the Army.

After Mom finished unpacking her last box at the new apartment she looked at Jake and said, “And then there were two.”

***

Jake slips in and out of consciousness.

When he does come to he finds his nose taped up and a towel duct-taped around his head like some kind of crazy turban. He’s splayed-out flat on a cold stone floor, trapped behind a wall of chain-link.

Not good.

He sits up, the whole world spinning, and he knows: Sheriff’s station. Well, a cell in the sheriff’s station. He’s been here before.

Jake sees no one out there in the office. Most of the lights are switched off. Must be late. He’s alone. A headache like none he’s ever known, geological in scope, bisects the back of his skull. If he had a shotgun, he would erase the pain in one trigger-pull. But Jake’s got no shotgun. Got nothing.

He starts to slip the turban off his head but some of his hair’s caught in the tape and a sudden white-hot lance of pain spears through his head. He drops the turban and it falls back — why’s it so heavy? — hanging from the duct tape in his hair. It feels like he’s getting fucking scalped. He screams out and drops to the floor, the blood-wet towel slapping on the concrete as Jake lays tethered to the mess.

A door opens somewhere and a tentacle of dry ice-wind slides into the cell. The door slams shut. Boots tramp in the office.

“Wakey Wakey, Jakey Jakey!” the sheriff shouts.

Jake worries about his dignity. He gets to his knees and tries to pull the cold towel from his bloody hair.

Two mustachioed men stand before Jake’s cell. One’s the sheriff and the other, Jake can’t quite say. Both men wear sour, exasperated faces. Jake has troubled them.

“How’s your head?” Sheriff asks but does not wait for an answer. “Only sawbones I could get this hour was the good vet, here. I trust you’ll be payin’ his fee.”

Still kneeling, Jake tilts his head to look at the vet and then something awful happens: Jake begins to cry.

This offends the men to the point that they shut their eyes and turn their heads.

***

Jake left high school before the end of his senior year. Mom was sick by this time. Jake worked days at BD’s old job at the batting cages and got a night job as a doorman at a local bar — Smitty’s High Dive.

Jake liked the night job. He checked IDs some nights, bar-backed others. He usually got out of there by three-thirty in the morning at the latest.

One night, as Jake dragged a mop bucket from the bathroom to the bar, someone shouted his name over the music.

BD stood there, holding a Budweiser, looking at Jake. He was heavier than Jake had ever seen him — both muscle and fat. His hair was tied back in a pony-tail. Jake hadn’t seen or heard Word One from him in four years.

BD smiled at him. “Hey, brother.”

***

After closing, they sat at the bar and drank a beer.

“How’s the Army?” Jake asked.

“Don’t know,” he said. “Haven’t seen it in a while. How you like working here?”

“It’s good,” Jake said. “Mom know you’re back?”

He shook his head no.

“Just arrived tonight.”

“Where you gonna stay?”

“I got a room across the street. How’s Mom?”

“Uh, not good, BD. She’s got lupus.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Disease. Makes her sick a lot. She’s almost bald now.”

“She gonna die?”

“No. But she needs help,” Jake said. “What are you gonna do?”

He looked at Jake, then the bar and asked, “Is this place hirin’?”

Jake knew BD was making a joke. But he must not have been a hundred percent joking because when he did get offered some doormen shifts he said yes.

BD moved back in with Jake and their mother. Mom was in and out of the hospital a lot during this time. Over the next three years, the brothers worked at the bar and BD got moved up to bartender and day manager. Jake stayed at doorman and bar-back. Jake didn’t complain about that though because BD was older and that made more sense. BD was a good manager and things were okay for a while. They were good even — except of course for Mom.

BD and Jake would have moved out. They would have rented their own apartment, they could afford one, but neither could bring themselves to leave her. BD and Jake stayed there. They stood by her.

Jake never really thought much about the future. Jake guesses if he did, he would have said BD would take over the bar one day and make him a manager. That might have been his dream, if Jake admitted that he had one.

Tuesday night was Ladies’ Night at the bar, which of course was a joke. It was a dingy place and some nights there wasn’t even a need to mop up the Ladies’ Room afterward since no one had been in it. So when BD and Jake closed up that Tuesday night there wasn’t much to do. That’s when BD looked across the bar and said, “I have an idea. If you wanna say no, I won’t blame you. But I have a way to make some money.”

Jake could have predicted what BD was going to say. Jake stared at him.

“I’m leaving here, and I want you to come with me,” BD said.

“What about Mom?”

“We can leave her some money. She can hire some help. You wanna stick around here forever or no?”

Jake didn’t answer.

“I’m gonna rob this place,” he said. “Some night, I’m gonna wait till late, when I’m the only one here and I’ll take the cash from the safe, bag it up and throw it on the roof. I’ll call the police and tell ‘em I was held up at gunpoint. All you’d have to do is come pick up the money in the morning. After that, we wait three months…leave. Mom will be okay.”

Jake didn’t give him a solid answer for two weeks, but in the end he agreed.

***

When it finally happened, Jake believed the police probably knew the score within five seconds of walking inside the bar. BD didn’t come home till five in the morning. He looked badly shaken. All he said was, “Wait an hour.”

At dawn Jake drove to Smitty’s, parked three blocks away and skulked back in the alley behind the bar. Jake climbed the dumpster onto the roof and found BD’s backpack full of cash (nine thou, Jake later learned).

The police were waiting for him by the time he got home. Somebody must have seen him, called the police, who knows?

They took BD, and Jake had never seen his mother look so scared. Her bones shook. All she could do was ask hopeless questions. The police ignored her, BD ignored her, Jake ignored her.

Jake confessed in under an hour. Just rolled over on BD. In return for his confession, Jake got one year of probation. BD got three years at the Men’s Facility down in Bowster.

BD was killed by his cellmate the second day of his incarceration. Mom got real sick and went back into the hospital. Jake doesn’t like to think about that year.

When his probation was up, Mom had healed up enough to live on her own again. But Jake didn’t say goodbye. He just boarded a train for Seattle. He worked a couple bar jobs in town, then went up through Canada and washed dishes, just working his way north, not really knowing what he was doing.

***

The vet cuts away a strip of hair at the back of Jake’s head. He cleans the wound with alcohol pads and knits the flesh together — a lucky thirteen stitches. The vet slaps a pad of gauze against the slit in Jake’s head and tapes it around his forehead so that Jake feels like he’s wearing a sweatband, as if he just came from the gym.

Jake feels like throwing up. His face is all punched-up to distortion and his head has a new window in it, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the acute pang of shame that rips up from his testicles to his sinuses when Mandy walks into the office with the sheriff.

She stands, hands in the pockets of her faded pink parka, her face so softened by exhaustion that her skin looks like clay.

“Fella that handed you your ass,” Sheriff — that asshole — says, “will press no charges.”

Sheriff rolls back the chain-link and the vet gathers his things.

“Fella’s already on his way out of town, anyway,” Sheriff says. “That’s how little of an impression you made, I guess.”

Vet steps out of the cell, nods at Sheriff, nods at Mandy and leaves.

“I thought the old man was somebody else,” Jake says.

Sheriff blasts one buckshot crack of laughter.

“I guess you musta, Jake!” He looks to Mandy, then back at Jake. “That fella clear up your confusion for you?”

“Hi Mandy,” Jake says.

“Hi Jake,” she says.

“I can’t even begin to guess why,” Sheriff says, “but Mandy’s offered to buy you off my hands. So, you now owe her and the vet.”

It’s after one in the morning by the time Jake’s processed out. Mandy gives him a ride in her rusted-through Galaxy. She keeps the windows up and smokes a Parliament Light, tipping ash into the little console tray. Jake sits shotgun, pressing ice (wrapped in his own bloody towel — thanks, Sheriff.) against the back of his head. The headlights sway in the dark fog. Motes of snow glitter at the rims of the high-beams.

“How much was it?” Jake asks, wincing before she even answers.

“Four hundo.”

Jake waits a minute, then offers, “I’m sorry, Mandy.”

She inhales on the cigarette and the red light of the ember swells and reflects on her face and in the discs of her eyes.

She drives him to his two-room rental at the edge of the scrap yard.

He looks at the swath of frosty gravel where his truck should be.

“It’s still at the lodge,” Mandy says.

The digital clock reads ten minutes to two. “Mandy, would you come in?” Jake says.

Mandy straightens, inhales to deny, but Jake interrupts, “Not like that. I just feel bad. I just want to give you somethin’. A cup of coffee or a drink or something. Please. Please?”

There’s nothing to the house. Two stacked twin mattresses and a twisted pile of blankets. A coffee table littered with tobacco and candy wrappers. Plastic wrap and sheets of newspaper taped over all the windows.

Mandy’s never been inside before.

Jake’s got half a bottle of red wine sitting uncorked between the sink and the toaster. He cleans a coffee mug, fills it to the brim with wine and hands it to Mandy.

Jake shovels clothes and a blanket off the couch.

“I know it’s late and you already did a lot, but I just want you to stay for a minute, if that’s alright,” Jake says. “Not like that. But just, you know, I want to try and say thanks somehow.”

His voice trembles and he half-expects to take to crying again. The rip in the back of his head begins to burn. The headband makes him feel silly. Every inch of his busted-up face hurts. Maybe he’d feel better if he did cry. Jake sits down on his couch and rubs his hands on his jeans. He spiders his hands and spreads and retracts the fingertips, tracing the edges of his kneecaps.

Mandy sits down beside him and sets the mug on the coffee table.

“Jake,” she says, “how long have you been here, in Brutus?”

Jake sees where this is going. His left eyelid flutters. A twitch rides along the length of the nerve across his eyelid. A teardrop gathers there beneath it. He coughs and mashes the tear back into his head.

“Two years.”

“Working at the plant the whole time?” she asks. “Right?”

“Well, yeah,” he says. “Mostly.”

“Where are you from? Lonesome somewhere?”

“Lunsun. T-X.” Jake says.

Mandy lifts the mug of wine with both hands but does not drink. “Why don’t you go home?”

Jake inhales for a moment, looks at an ash stain on his carpet, then says, “I wouldn’t know what to say if I did.”

“Yeah,” Mandy nods. “Who would?”

Jake looks at her and squares his jaw. He chews the flesh of his inner cheek.

She sets down the mug. “I have to go.”

“I’ll pay you back as soon as I can,” Jake says, turning away from her face.

She stands and lightly rests her hand on Jake’s shoulder. She squeezes once, then leaves out the front door.

Jake watches her headlights illuminate. The guttural engine revs and the Galaxy performs a wide, slow arc back onto the road and he watches her taillights until they wink out of sight.

He stands in the little kitchenette. He rubs his swollen cheeks. He touches the bruises on his face with the dry pads of his fingers.

After a while, he sits back down on the couch. He lifts her mug of wine from the coffee table and holds it close to his lips. He smells the pepper of the wine, the old fume of coffee. He tips the mug to his face and drinks, spilling most of it down the skin of his throat.


Lane Kareska studied writing at Columbia College Chicago and received his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Lane traveled Europe and South America to research his graduate thesis. His fiction has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, ThugLit, Sheepshead Review and elsewhere. His novella North Dark was recently published by Sirens Call. He also reviews classic X-Men comics at his website, www.lanekareska.com.





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