Fiction: Iron Horse

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By: Winn Lewis

Duncan rolled over and saw where the blood had begun to brown on the sheets, swinging his legs to the edge and reaching for his paint splotched jeans. He hadn’t planned on staying long anyway. Leslie laid beside him, sheets half cocked off a body that time refused to forgive.
“I hadn’t noticed,” she said, looking at the small stains smeared across the 300 count white sheets. A skylight overhead poured the afternoon across the meager bedroom, cut only by the sloped ceiling of her second floor apartment. As Duncan rose from the bed, she half smiled, licking her thumb and wiping away a dried blood streak from his inner thigh.
 “Don’t uh…” Duncan looked down, the blood thin and nearly gone. “Don’t worry about it – it’s fine. ”
 He’d been in more compromising situations with Leslie before and at this juncture in his life, he could handle anything. He’d come to see Leslie almost weekly, having never taken issue with her seemingly bored demeanor. It was a small town and for a man pushing fifty, he felt his options falling away, moving away, and on occasion – dying away. Duncan reached the bottom of the stairs and kicked the door leading into the empty bar of the Iron Horse. He locked the door leading to the upstairs apartment him and dropped the keys in a beer mug along side the register. He scanned the silent bar – a disco ball and colored lights in the center danced to their private ballet. In the far corner, an aging, twenty foot disco floor lit up intermittently. Duncan reached for his tool belt left on top of the bar, synched it around his waist, and got to work.
 The floor pattern was off and a few tiles weren’t lighting at all. He sat up on his knees watching the lights – mouthing the rhythmic count and stopping on a dead tile. The front door to the bar swung open sending sunlight spilling through the room. Mitchell, a fresh faced kid still reeling is his post collegiate lifestyle and wearing his Rhode Island College sweatshirt – stumbled through the door with four bottles of liquor under each arm, incase the count ran low ahead of the next delivery – or so the ledger would later read. Duncan smirked, having seen this play out many times. He knew full well that the bar hadn’t seen a soul beyond it’s regular twenty in nearly five years. Duncan had seen Mitchell’s game before and knew that the liquor bottles would never make their way into the inventory.
 “You’re back already, huh?” Mitchell said, placing the bottles on the floor next to the door leading to the apartment, not even pretending to shelve the stuff. A bottle of vodka teetered and broke to the ground. He kicked the broken glass back towards the bar. “Second time in a week, right? I’ve been telling her to rid that thing out since we moved in. I don’t know how the hell it keeps breaking. No one uses it. No one even looks at it.”
 Duncan pulled the broken plexiglass tile free and lifted it up. “Damn thing is getting old, ya know? Needs attention, maintenance, elbow grease, and a little love.” Duncan replied, keeping his head down, unable to contain a growing smile.
“Have you heard from my mom today?” Mitchell said, moving behind the bar and pouring a beer off the tap. “She said she’d be around for deliveries.”
 Duncan waved his hand toward the apartment door, still feigning interest in the broken tile. “I think I heard something upstairs. She may have already gotten the delivery.” Mitchell pulled the keys from the mug, unlocked the door, and disappeared up the stairs. Unable to contain himself, he collapsed on his back and shook with laughter. He’d met Mitchell a few years earlier when he began doing repairs for Leslie at the Iron Horse. Mitchell had a bit of a swagger back then and for a time, was thought to snap his branch from the tree. But like all that frequented, were familiar with, or even lived within a few miles of the Iron Horse – he hadn’t fallen far enough. He carried the same demeanor, swagger, and chip as his mother. His future was now; an aging bar with the relics of the past, trapped somewhere between keeping the lights on and property taxes.
From the outside, the Iron Horse had the makings of a dilapidate roadhouse. Its wooden frame and peeled gray paint shown years of northeast winter slouch and the pane glass windows to the upstairs apartment rattled in even the most modest breeze. The bar phone trembled as Duncan rocked himself forward over the repaired tile, gathering his tools at the sound of Mitchell bounding down the stairs back into the bar, his heavy steps echoing and rattling old photographs nailed into the wood paneled walls. Leslie wasn’t far behind as Mitchell picked up the converted pay phone turned house phone.
“Iron Horse?”
 With no word or glance and tools tools back on his belt, Duncan made his was across the bar and out the door into the fading daylight. Mitchell’s fist clenched the phone – his knuckles ripped white. Leslie took her place at the bar with a cigarette carefully positioned at the tip of her fingers to maintain some sibilance of dainty demeanor. She straddled the bar stool allowing her vacant stare to press past the liquor bottles lining the wall towards a dollar bill taped up behind the register. It was signed – Jake. Mitchell let the phone fall back on the receiver and teetered in place while straining to make eyes with his mother.
 “Hey!” Mitchell shouted. He tossed a wadded napkin over the bar top at Leslie, hitting her in the chest. “It was dad.” Leslie’s head dropped to the bar with a thud.
 The tailgate to Duncan’s pickup was rusted through from years of saltwater and hard driving. His shoulder pressed against it, allowing his veins to spider from his neck and his feet to slide from under him. He slumped to the gravel lot gasping for air. He’d considered replacing the tailgate more than a few times. He’d thought about replacing the truck a few times, too, but the Iron Horse was the only dance floor in town and his desire to succumb to the reality of a mere handyman was still beyond his graces. The clunker held together despite his meager living with a few light patches, amateur welding, and the occasional bubble gum repair.
 The evening lull cracked with a thunderous clap as a motorcycle rounded the highway leading to the Iron Horse. Duncan tuned to see a denim satan strapped to a bike bent on terror. It was a chop job with all the eccentricities, weight, and flash stripped for raw power, easy repair, and quick getaways. The high handlebars were gripped by grease stained palms and its sides were clinched boots meant for pain. It wasn’t a comfortable ride, but was practical in any situation an outlaw might find himself in. Duncan scrambled to the cab of his truck, feeling his pockets for his keys and pulling the handle hard enough to shake one side free from the dented door. He knew not to lose sight of the demon, but not to look at him either. The motorcycle eased into the lot of the Iron Horse and moved dust and gravel in its wake. It came to rest along side Duncan’s truck with a final boom, echoing throughout the countryside as if to warn of his arrival. Duncan threw his truck into gear and rolled forward when a tap on his window caused him to slamming on the brakes. He turned, focusing on the heavy chest and arms pressed against his door. He cranked the window down enough to sting his nose with the smell of cigarettes and sweat.
“Your tails hangin’, son.” said a deep voice.
Duncan glance back to see the tailgate still rusted and down. His eyes locked into the rearview as heavy boots slushed across the gravel. The biker crossed behind the truck and gripped either side of the tailgate and lifted it into position, knocking a cloud a rust into the air. The man leaned over the tailgate looking back at Duncan’s rearview reflection.
“Let me buy you a beer.” he said as he knocked the rust from his hands.
 Duncan cracked a slight smile as the knot in his stomach eased. The bikers face was worn by the sun, creased from hard living, and completely juxtaposed by soft eyes. The door to the Iron Horse kicked open as the biker entered first, blowing smoke across the bar, encircling the waining daylight. The place was completely empty. Mitchell and Leslie were nowhere to be found as the disco ball continued to spin in silence and the floor lights kept perfect time. The biker saddled a stool, looked around, and plunged a fist into the icy beer cooler behind the bar top, coming up with two cans. Duncan took a bar stool, leaving an empty one between them while scanning the empty room. He had no idea why he’d come back. It was customary for him to take his leave when Mitchell arrived for the evening shift, as not provoke any unnecessary conversation between himself and Leslie. It hadn’t been a spoken rule, but a custom begun in the early days of their affair. It was clean – usually, and uncomplicated. He liked it that way. Now he found himself swimming upstream; he was perched at the bar during Mitchell’s shift but more than that, he was concerned that he had no reason to be there at all.
Duncan looked the biker over, uncertain of his intentions. At this point, given the chance, he appeared as though he might robbed the place. His two cans of beer were quickly drained and with no help in sight, Duncan looked to the register, concerned about what he might reach for next. There was an easy two hundred or so sitting in the drawer. Duncan had seen Mitchell count it out at the start of his shift dozens of times. With one fist wrapped around two beers and the other with a wad a cash, the biker could take off at any moment and leave Duncan to answer unexplainable questions and clean up a mess far beyond the complications of the dance floor. Duncan watched from the corner of his eye as the man seemingly finished the beers in a single gulp and plunged a fist for two more. He looked toward the door to the apartment and leaned forward, straining his ears for the the sound of bounding footsteps. None came.
“Someone should be back any moment,” Duncan said, hoping to slap some sense into the bike before he burned the place down. Sweat formed over Duncan’s temple and plunged. The biker lit a second cigarette, haven not given time to finish the first. It sat in the ashtray smoldering between them.
“It’s fine.” The biker spun on his stool to face Duncan. “We’re just bullshittin’. Door was open. We haven’t done anything. “The biker looked Duncan over for the first time, his eyes stopping on the tool belt at Duncan’s waist. “What the hell are you doin’ here, anyway? Fixin’ shit?”
Duncan glanced towards the dance floor.
 “Oh, holy shit son, that’s you? I heard about you. Leslie’s still worries about that bullshit,” the biker said, crushing the empty can in his fist.
“I don’t know if I’d call it bullshit.” Duncan replied. “I suppose there was a time and a place for it.”
“You think some dainty couple walks in here to test out your newest fix? Spinnin’ their leather over lights and energizing a sexual desire that died twenty years and nine months earlier in the backseat of his fathers stationwagon?”
 Duncan braced himself on the bar top to avoid falling off his stool. A philosophical insight into the workings of small town mistakes hadn’t been in the cards when he walked back inside the Iron Horse. The biker continued to gaze at the floors hypnotic dance. “That thing was here when she got into the place. I heard she was getting it repaired weekly. Just bullshit. No one goes on it. No one looks at it. Leslie must break it just to give her a reason to turn the lights on in here each day.”
 He’d often wondered how it kept breaking. Unlike his truck, he wasn’t fixing the floor with band-aids and hope. He’d put in new parts, clean and repair old parts, and maintain it as if it weren’t his.
“You might be right,” Duncan said.
 The biker sat with his back against the bar top. He put his elbows behind him and leaned, stretching his entire upper body and sending stern cracks from his neck to his feet. The biker lived a razor free lifestyle and days of dirt and sweat gathered in the wrinkles of his forehead. Duncan studied the bikers face, watching the wrinkles contract as he sipped, his hands tighten on the can, his denim vest rise and fallen under barrels as he breathed. The biker finished off his can and pitched it over the bar top to the floor behind the bar.
 “I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ mind,” the biker said with a grin. Duncan could only managed a nervous smile.
The biker lead Duncan down a flight of splintered stairs into the basement and pounded a fist against the wall at the bottom. A single light bulb buzzED to life as it hung in the center of the room. The stairs swayed with every step as Duncan inched his way down. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“I’ve been around here a long time.” the biker barked.
 “I’ve never seen you.” said Duncan, reaching the last step and stepping into the hum of the light.
 “I’ve never seen you either.”
 Duncan thought about it. The biker had a point. He’d never stuck around to actually meet the regulars. One or two had hustled in early before when he was still working – but Mitchell had always tossed them into the parking lot to wait until he was ready. He had never been much of a drinker and though he thought about sticking around a few times, he’d always catch Leslie’s eye and know that his welcome was on the brink of overstayed. He was just as comfortable as the next man at the Iron Horse, but this was a different level. They were trespassing.
The biker threw a bull-switch, sending the room into a colored frenzy. It was as if Jackson Pollock had been an electrician; light raced up walls, spun in all directions, and shot across the room. Lasers flashed from corners and spun from the ceiling, transforming the dismal hole into a wonderland. Old paint shelves, bottomed couches, dust covered bar paraphernalia, and broken mini-fridges stacked to the ceiling like a mid- western garage suddenly became euphoric with the makings of a life for younger hearts.
Duncan stood in the center, captivated. “I had no idea.”
 “No one does,” the biker said. “It wasn’t always the Iron Horse. Well, not like it is now.”
Duncan dropped to the tattered couch, his eyes fixed on a laser machine spinning over him and crashing light in all directions. In the far corner, a walk-in refrigerator sat rusting with a dull hum. The biker tugged the handle and muscled it open. He emerge with a bottle of wine. Using a pocket knife, he jabbed the cork inside the bottle and took a long draw. Duncan took the bottle with hesitation. The lip was greased from the days ride. He rolled it through his hands and caught the biker watching him expectantly. Duncan closed his eyes and threw it back, spilling wine over his teeth and down his cheek.
One by one, bottles slowly climbed the stairs in balanced placement having been sucked dry. Bottle number five sat between them on the couch. The biker had taken an end next to Duncan and was played out with his hairy arms stretched across the top.
“If you took all that gravel outside and tossed it in the air, shot it, and sent it flying, there’d still be more stars. I’ve ridden that thing across the desert at night without my headlights.”
 Duncan’s cheeks had become puffy and his vacant stare had no end.
“I need a bike,” Duncan replied.
The biker leaned over Duncan’s lap and tugged at his shirt to reveal a six inch gash the nape of his neck.
“I hit a coyote.” the biker said.
“The animal or the trafficker?”
 The biker let out a laugh that shook the room.
Duncan looked down at the scar. “I don’t need a bike.”
 The biker sat back up and Duncan took a gulp of wine, sending the bottle down between them on the hard edge of the couch in with a crash. Glass covered his lap. He looked down to see a small piece sticking from the bikers thigh.
 The biker looked down. “I didn’t need that.”
Duncan leapt to his feet. “Jesus. Oh hell, okay. I uh…” He frankly searched the shelves, pushing empty liquor bottles aside. Duncan turned to see the biker put the glass between two fingers and pluck it out. Blood pushed out and stained his jeans. Duncan stood over him, licked his finger, and wiped the blood clean from the mans leg. He froze in terror, realizing what he’d done. Wanting to keep his face as a single piece, Duncan edged toward the stairs. The biker rose from the couch. Duncan back peddled toward the steps.
 “I didn’t mean – fuck. There’re lights going everywhere and I don’t know what I’m doing here and it’s been a really strange day. There was wine and shit got weird and you were bleeding. I should go.”
 The biker put his finger over Duncan’s mouth letting a heavy silence envelope the basement. Duncan wiped the growing sweat on his palms against his jeans. The biker reached around Duncan’s waist and kissed him. Duncan pushed back before his arms fell limp as the heavy man pressed down on him. He’d been with plenty of women in his past. His number was nothing shameful, yet nothing to write home about either. Duncan closed his eyes as sweat burned through them, falling from his face. The biker rose to his feet.
“What was that?”
Duncan’s eyes flew open and he looked up at the door at the top of the stairs.
CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.
The biker leaned down and planted a final kiss on him.
 CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.
 The moment was gone as both men climbed the basement stairs back into the bar. They spilled out and wiped their faces on their sleeves. Leslie kneeled over the dance floor as she brought a hammer down on the tile, sending cracks across it. Duncan ran up behind her a pulled the hammer away.
“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled.
Leslie spun in place and looked past Duncan. Her face fell white as the blood drained. The biker had propped his elbows up against the bar and leaned back. He stared Leslie down.
“Get the fuck out!” she screamed.
 The biker stood with a smirk.
 “Get out!”
 “Give me my god damn rent.” the biker replied, patiently picking his teeth with his fingernail.
“You lying ass hole. I already paid you!”
 “That was three months ago.”
“You know what? Get out. Get the fuck out of my bar!”
“Now it’s yours?”
“I run it! I pay the bills. I fix the broken toilets. I turn the lights on everyday.”
“Who owns it? You? You paid for it? You put everything on the line for it? That was you?”
 Leslie snatched the hammer from Duncan’s hand.
 “You mother-fucker.” She tore across the bar towards the biker with the hammer raised over her head. Duncan reached for her waist and puller her back as she swung, missing the bikers head by an inch. Duncan jockied for position between them.
What are you doing? What the hell is going on?” Duncan said. He looked to the hammer in Leslie’s hand, then to the dance floor. “And why the hell are you destroying that?”
Leslie aimed the hammer at the biker as if to throw.
 “That is my husband.” she sneered.
 “I don’t understand.” Duncan said, his eyes jumping around the room. Leslie slapped him. “Why the hell are you still here? You left an hour ago.”
“Why are you destroying my floor?” he replied.
Leslie grabbed Duncan’s shirt collar, running it between her fingers. “I just want to see you again.”
The biker let out a cackle. Leslie sent the hammer across the room and the biker ducked as a row of liquor bottles behind the bar exploded. Duncan collapsed into a chair in disbelief.
“Quit fucking the help. Ask him where he was for the last hour.” grunted the biker.
Leslie turned to Duncan. “What’s happened?” Her eyes shot to the open basement door.
 “Nothing.”
 “Please? Please tell me this isn’t happening.” Leslie’s eyes welled up. She spun to face her husband. “You backstabbing mother-fucker!”
 She fell to her knees sobbing. Duncan dropped in front of her but before he could wrap his arms around her, she socked him in the eye sending him to his back.
 “What the hell is happening here?” Duncan barked.
“If we divorce, I lose this place, okay? “ she cried.
 “What?”
Leslie’s eyes drifted past Duncan to the biker. “That’s Jake. My husband.” Her soft sobs from the floor continued. “Please, just leave.” Leslie stopped crying and sat up stone-faced. “I can’t believe I found another gay one.”
 Leslie’s face fell into her hands. Her body trembled. The door to apartment stairs swung and Mitchell spilled out. He looked from his father, to his mother, then letting his eyes rest on Duncan.
 Duncan stumbled across the parking lot to his truck. He plunged the key in the ignition and hit the gas, careening into the motorcycle and sending it crashing across his headlights. Duncan climbed from the truck and looked up at the neon white sign over the Iron Horse. The gas inside the sign pulsed through the tubing, standing on its last legs. Duncan removed his tool belt and dropped it in the bed of the truck. He tossed his keys against the door of the bar. With his back to the Iron Horse, the white neon rose over his shoulder and lit his way to the road under a blanket of stars.

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