Ugly Songbird

Ice and frozen slush crackled loudly beneath my tires as I swung into the parking lot of the local dive bar.

I eased the brake and threw the gear in park, then leaned back in my seat for a moment, enjoying the rest. I’d been on the road a long time. I drew a cigarette from the pack beneath the passenger seat and lit it before sliding to my left and out onto the slippery concrete.

I strode with purpose through old cars and beat-up trucks, but there weren’t many. There were plenty of empty spaces in that parking lot.

The bar was called The Whiskey Jack and passed the first door, the entrance to the bar proper was marked by swinging saloon-style doors. The Whiskey Jack was a shithole if I’d ever seen one, but I’d found pussy in worse places. Better than the dark, endless snow and the long road ahead.

My eyes scanned the bar for local talent, a long-practiced habit that I repeated anytime I found myself in a new location. My gaze settled on a pretty little thing, a country bimbo if you will. She was halfway to forty from thirty, and had tits the size of cannonballs. I found my feet dragging me towards her, drawn like magnets to our inevitable togetherness.

I made out a meaty rump beneath her red dress and I couldn’t help but imagine how bouncy it would be. My mind conjured the image of a hand, my hand presumably, raising the woman’s bum and then releasing it, allowing the meat to bounce down in slow motion.

I had an erection at that point, but who wouldn’t? Don’t worry, I buy a very select cut of pant that obscures my enthusiasm. I sat myself down next to the woman. Other than her, there were only a small handful of people in the bar; a group of thick men at a corner table, an old half-conscious geezer just down the bar, and a young lady bartender texting and leaning against a counter.

“You come here much?”I asked, mashing out my cigarette in the nearby ashtray, which was full of butts.

The woman smiled and shook her head. “No, not much. Usually just to meet my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend hey? Not a wise guy, I take it? He’d have to be daft to leave you here unattended,” I said.

“Unattended?” The woman said, smirking at me. “Interesting choice of words.”

I coughed and nodded apologetically. “Sorry, I was just trying to say that you’re very beautiful, and if you were mine, I don’t think I’d let you out of my sight.”

I focused an intense, hot look on her and this is usually when I would see some physical changes in the ladies. They might look away and smile, then peek back to check I was still there. They might bite a lip and grin, they might even gasp subtley, a sharp inhalation of breath, a swelling of the breasts, but that’s not how it went this time.

The woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Are you serious man?”

I looked down at my clothes to make sure I hadn’t spilled anything on myself, but no, I was neat and clean. “What?” I asked.

“Man, that’s fake as shit. Any girl who falls for that -“ she examined me again. “Well, I guess you are a pretty boy.”

I smiled charmingly. I was all the more attracted to her for having been rejected. It didn’t happen often. “Lots of girls fall for it,” I said. “They fall hard and then they moan.”

The woman barked a laugh and gave me a hard look. “I bet they do.” She sat up and I admired the view as she whistled for the bartender’s attention.

“Hey Kelly get off your phone or I’ma tell Tom you’re being a lazy bitch. Now do your job and get us a drink.” She turned to me. “What’ll you have?”

“Triple Jameson. Neat,” I said.

She rolled her eyes and then ordered her drink; a whiskey and ginger.

“Okay so what’s your name big shot?” She asked.

I laughed. “The name’s Calvin, and the ladies’ name is?”

“Kate,” she said, offering a hand.

I took her wrist and leaned forward to kiss her hand, but she slapped me across the face. Hard.

There was a thump as our drinks arrived. I stared in shock at Kate, this buxom blonde with the ‘can’t-touch-me’ spirit and now she had levelled me one across the cheek. I liked this one.

“No touching, I’m a taken woman,” Kate said. “I know you think you’re somethin’ special there with your wounded wanderer act but I already have a man, thank you very much and any woman who messes around on a good man is no woman at all.”

For the first time in a very long time, perhaps since that incident with the chickens in Iowa, I was lost for words. My first reaction was to feel insecure, so I reached up and touched my face. Maybe I was getting old.

“No, you’re as handsome as ever, doll, but I genuinely have a man I believe is better than you. Especially better than a single night in the sack. Even with you.”

“What- What is this guy like a Professional Athlete or something?” I asked.

Kate laughed so hard that she almost fell off her chair, stopping herself with a foot. “Man you are such a wreck. Proud as a peacock on the surface, but soft and scared as a wet kitten underneath. What do you do?”

I sighed and turned away from her, taking my whiskey and throwing it down the hatch, swallowing flame and coughing.

“You are handsome,” she said. “Hell your gorgeous. It’s the only reason I’m talking to you right now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why what?”

“Why is it the only reason?”

“Cause you’re an ass,” she said, laughing again and drinking. “But hey, you’re easy on the eyes.”

My shoulders slumped at her words and I fought down a wave of anger. “Nothing more than a pretty face, huh?” I asked.

“No, you also possess an astounding level of self-involvement,” she said.

I almost got up and walked out of there, but then she laid a hand on my arm. “Listen, that’s okay. You’re young. You’ve got time. I’m just saying, stop hitting on me because my husband is going to be here soon and he’s my guy, not you.”

My back straightened a bit. “Is that it?”

“Is what it?”

“He’s a real monster? An aggressive turd who tries to control everything you do?”

“Oh my god no, it’s just that I love him, and you’re amusing, but honestly, pretty shallow. Maybe ten years ago, we could’ve fooled around,” she said. Her tone was dismissive.

“Ten years ago, huh? Good thing I have a time machine. It’s not a delorean, but it’s parked in the lot and it’s ready to rock your-“

“Stop,” Kate said. “Dude. Are you serious? What’s next you gonna hum the melody to ghostbusters?”

I was blushing furiously, but I had no where to go, so I swallowed my drink and shrugged, feeling numb in the face. A good sign.

“I’d hum the melody to anything if it meant we could fool around.”

Kate shushed me with a hand, turning to the front door as it swung open. I didn’t raise my eyes from my drink, the woman was right, I didn’t have much game after the initial approach. I was like a sexy stealth agent, though once discovered, I was a useless twat.

“Baby,” said Kate, standing. “Come, I got us a table.”

I rolled my gaze to the door and the man walking towards our table, eager to meet my supposed better.

As he came closer, I made out a small guy, he was maybe five foot seven. What the fuck? He was wearing heavy jeans, dusted with snow. A hood peaked out underneath one of those plaid checkered jackets like you’d expect a hunter to wear. I had originally thought this woman must have a lawyer on the hook, or a doctor; regardless, a rich sop that she could wind around her finger like tattered string until she used him to decorate the house and buy her threads.

When his eyes met mine I actually gasped. The guy was an ugly piece of shit. His ruddy face was like a crumpled sheet, wrinkled and unshapely. His eyes were uniquely placed at different heights on his face. His mouth was thin-lipped and as he smiled, I saw his teeth were crooked and yellow.

“Hey there love,” he said, bending down and kissing Kate on the lips. Her eyes closed and her breath caught as their lips touched and my confusion deepened.

“Hey there bud,” he said to me, offering a hand and a smile. “Name’s Grant.” I took his hand and shook; his hands were rough pads, and his grip was limp. I got stuck on his smile for a moment, which was like seeing a work of art in a puddle of shit.

“Hey,” I said in return, as he sat down next to Kate.

“I must say,” I began but Kate shot me a look and shook her head no.

“What’s that?” Grant asked.

“You are not what I expected,” I said, uncaring with drink. I whistled at Kelly, the bartender, and signalled to bring another triple whiskey.

“I was expected?” Grant asked, smiling at Kate, who was smiling back at him sheepishly.

“Well, I was talking to your beautiful wife, putting on the charms as I’m known to do, when she said she was not at all interested, that she had a great husband,” I said.

Grant smiled softly, “that’s so sweet babe,” and kissed her gently, a hand on her lower back.

“It’s the truth,” Kate said.

“Yes, it’s just that – well, you’re fuckin’ ugly man.” I said. “I don’t know if you know, hell, you probably do – you look in the mirror every morning after all,” I said, waiting for a reaction.

Grant just turned his ugly mug and winked at me. “It ain’t all about looks kiddo.”

Kelly brought us a round of drinks and then slouched off. Grant picked up his pint and began to drink it.

“What do you do kid?” Grant asked me. There was no judgement, no hate or anger in the question, just good-natured curiousity.

“Nothin’ at the moment,” I said.

“Everyone does somethin’,” Kate said.

“Well right now, I guess I wander. I’ve been drivin’ to California from New York,” I said.

“California?” asked Grant. “What’s there?”

“More of the same, I s’pose,” I said.

“Women, whiskey and trouble,” said Kate with a smile.

“The very same,” I said. I drained my drink. “I mean, I’ve travelled halfway already and I’ve been with women.”

Grant chuckled.

“I mean it,” I said heatedly, unappreciative of the man’s humour at my expense. “I can walk in just about anywhere and pull just about any woman. I mean, I done it enough times to be sure. I’m not just talkin’ steam here.”

“I bet you’re not,” Grant said, looking at me with imminent amusement.

“I’ve been with wives of Senators, wives of oil tycoons, you name it. But then I come in here, and you – wife to the ugliest man I’ve ever seen. I can’t make sense of it.”

“Well just because a woman’s married to a rich, powerful man doesn’t mean she’s happy,” said Kate.

“True,” I said, “they all fuck around on their men. But not you. The beauty who married beast.”

“You know, you remind me of someone,” Kate said. “I’ve been married twice before. Once to an actor. A guy like you. Was as much in love with himself as he was with me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He was too damn neurotic for my tastes. I prefer a man who’s comfortable in his skin, no matter how that skin looks on his bones.”

“Yeah, no offense Grant, but you’re goddamn butt ugly.”

“Ugly I am, but at least I know what I want kiddo,” said Grant.

“You want to discuss this more outside?”

“Not particularly.”

“What is it about him that you love so much?” I demanded again. There were other eyes on us now. The guys from the corner table were watching silently.

“How can you expect me to explain?” Kate asked. “I don’t know how to explain my love. It’s not a thing you can find in a cardboard box at the supermarket. What do you want from us?”

I was wobbling on my stool now, and I looked back and forth. “A goddamn explanation – of – of how a man that ugly can get a woman that beautiful.”

Shaking his head at me forlornly, Grant stood and walked my way He rested a hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay kid-“ but I pushed him away and stumbled back, the stool toppling to the floor with a bang.

“It’s the one – it’s the one thing I have,” I said, looking straight at the pair of them. “And now this hideous being has taken it from me. What good is the charm? What good is it if ugly beasts can steal them from me?” I don’t know when, but I had started to cry.

“Jesus christ,” said one of the men from the corner. “It’s a full on existential crisis.” They laughed roughly. “Just show ‘im Grant. You might be saving a life tonight.”

I met Grant’s eyes, and he was looking meaningfully back at me. Then he nodded and stood, walking to a stage at the front of the dank bar. He took the microphone in a single hand and looked around before his eyes settled on me. Then he began to sing.

A deep, bass voice rang out of his mouth and an ethereal stillness settled over that dive bar, transforming it into Carnegie Hall, even if just for a second. I looked at Kate, who was positively beaming at her husband as Grant sang the words to When I’m Sixty-Four. The man’s voice was the poetry of sound, the oral expression of beauty. His lips brought nirvana, and with it, bliss.

I stumbled as I turned away from the ugly man – the wretched creature with the soul of an angel, and I fell to the floor, smacking my head on the hard, carpeted ground. I stood with the assistance of a nearby patron, and wobbled my way to the door.

I learned the parking lot was still slipperywhen my feet flew out from beneath me and I landed hard on my back. The air was gone from my chest and I stared up at the clear night’s sky, sparkling with stars. I was so alone in the universe. It was just me – a tiny construct of skin, bone, muscle and blood, all powered by a machine the size of a fist. A broken machine.

I rose again, determined to make it to my car. I had to get out of this town. Fuck this place, fuck these stupid sentimental people. Better get to the city. Bright, fresh, laughing girls, pretty lights and anonymity in the crowd. This never would have happened there.

It took a bit of swimming to get my key into my car door, and a bit of labour to turn the key, but finally I sat behind the thin plastic-red wheel of my car.

It was one thing to be beautiful. I knew that was me. Enough women had complimented my looks to know that I was beautiful.

I threw my keys aside and reached under the passengers seat, awkwardly feeling around until my hand settled around a small cardboard box that shook with goodies. Some premium brand cigarettes, king-sized and half-empty.

Then I remembered the fuckin’ cigs would make me ugly. They speed up the appearance of wrinkles on the corners of your eyes. They make your skin dry out like a raisin.

The cig flopped out of my mouth and fell to the floor beneath my feet.

I grabbed ineffectively at the passenger seat, reaching for keys, until my fingers clasped them in the dark and guided them into the ignition. Heat, flame and momentum. Distance and velocity.

The road is long and lined with bumpers of snow and sleet, but I keep on. It’s all I know. The empty road, the quiet, violent void and the next stop.

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