social justice story

Every weekend, David goes to Bavo’s Bar on Luther Street to meet the fellow members of the State Social Justice Network, or ‘Hatebusters’ as they call themselves. They plot and figure out their course of action. They elaborate, pontificate on plans to make the state great and loving again, to beat back the tide of anti-immigration, white-pride sentiment. They figure out how to combat right-wing jingoism, how to save their great mountainous state. Of course, they do all this while imbibing beers. David cannot disagree with this sentiment. Social justice and beer go together like a horse and carriage.

Supposedly they meet at Bavo’s because the library, their regular meeting spot, is being renovated. David knows it’s because their chair, Betty Drew, is a lover of all things booze- related. They have discussed the finer points of booze on numerous occasions, along with the pitfalls of marriage and in particular David’s wife Claire, whom Mrs Drew knew well when Claire was a member of Hatebusters.

Perhaps it’s being a librarian that’s driven Betty to booze. Whatever it is, David relates all too well, even though he doesn’t know the intricacies, the nuances of Mrs Drew’s life, aside from the fact that she is Episcopalian and divorced. Booze has been David’s constant companion, especially since his wife took off. 90 Shillings. Fat Tires. Raspberry Provincials. It doesn’t matter. Of course, he’s been trying to give it up (with varying degrees of failure).

David has been a member of the group for a month and a half. He relishes it all, the debates about how to fight hatred and apply nonviolent principles of protest, peace, and love. The group had always filled Claire with a kind of frenetic energy that overwhelmed him but that he secretly liked. She always pushed him to go, until one day she gave up on that. Gave up on him. Gave up on their history altogether.

‘You’re stuck, David,’ she’d told him, not long before she left. They’d been in the kitchen of the apartment, covered in dust and the scent of weed. ‘I can’t repeat myself over and over. You know how it feels? It feels like I’m shouting into the middle of a storm, and there’s no fucking response.’

Going to the group meetings now gives him a certain grounding, a sense of moving towards some goal, some point on the horizon of his life. He wonders if Claire felt this way too, wonders what insecurities she felt undertaking all this. It gives him a chance to put the pieces of his life together.

His apartment burned down after he left a lit joint on the counter. He had to move to another small apartment by the railroad tracks that reeks of garbage and resounds with train horns and rap music.

His dog died.

He lost a job teaching high school history. Drunken behaviour and belligerence, Principal Doyle said. So what if he was a tad inebriated talking about Reconstruction? He could still wax wise about Thaddeus Stevens and the horrors of marriage in the same sentence. Didn’t that take talent? And now he’s starting a new job, and he feels as if he’s walking through a field of landmines, feels as if one might go off inevitably, as if the cycle might repeat itself.

His wife, his beloved Claire, took off. This was before he lost his job, of course. She texted him her goodbyes, told him she had to leave, and that was that. No final meeting, no diagnosis of the last weeks of marriage, no post-breakup meeting in a corny coffee shop. This was after seventeen years of marriage, after a whirlwind of teaching jobs and his own malaise and slide into drunkenness.

There was a time when she used to like his principles, his teaching. He’d be coming up with lesson plans and she’d join him on the couch. She’d lean in, and he’d feel the intimacy, the shared space, take in the scent of her soap, her cigarettes. He’d feel a kind of hypnotism, a sense of detachment from the world and its myriad expectations and questions. He’d tell her of troublesome students and the most promising ones, and he’d tell her stories of historical importance, of the fallen men and women, the heroes, and the villains. She was something of a listener.

Whether she left with another man, he cannot say. She simply took flight and disappeared into the vastness of the world. This lack of knowing things eats at him, like a parasite gnawing away at wood. Slowly. Slowly. But there is at least some hint of promise in the group, the hope of rising above the self. The promise of becoming an unrecognisable being, someone kinder and gentler. Someone who will not drink before class, yell at students. Lose jobs. Get into arguments over historical minutiae in the teacher’s lounge.

Tonight, they are meeting to figure out who will take charge of each ‘division’ as Mrs Drew calls them. They have spent the last month identifying and dissecting the major sources of hate in contemporary society. They have divided hate into several groups. Racism. Homophobia. Misogyny. Child abuse. His own wife, Claire, was once head of the homophobia division.

Mrs Drew admits they could dig deeper, find further subcategories, but they need to keep this simple. Keep their eyes on the prize. The world is full of labels, vast and complicated – husbands, wives, gay, straight, love, hate, breakups – and all he wants is something simpler.

It is a Saturday in fall, the plate-glass window opening to a view of Depression-era concrete buildings and a weed-covered railroad track that sees quite a bit of use. Dusk spills forward, purple and pink shadows dancing playfully. A full moon pokes out from behind a tree, smiling almost beatifically.

The group sits in a small booth near the pool table. A jukebox sits on the other side, glowing purple and pink, playing oldies tonight. Various beer signs festoon the wall. Bud Light. Coors. Fat Tire. The signs glow as if seducing the drinkers with their power, their possibility. Their emptiness. He knows this too well, knows the power of seduction, knows what it means to be pulled into this world of drunkenness and illusions. After all, it was drinking that set this chain of events in motion – and yet he still cannot get off that train.

People mingle at the bar and among the pool tables, and even around the bathrooms, their laughter occasionally disrupting the Hatebusters’ conversation. They speak of getting wasted (namely the maximum number of beers they can chug), the glories of puking and hangovers, things that David still finds entertaining and endearing in an odd little way. He feels a communion with these men and women, people with their own stories to tell. He feels a need to be among them, amid the scent of booze, needs to drink like a sailor.

His group members have called him out on it several times.

‘You need to channel this into something productive,’ Mrs Drew told him once when he’d ordered six beers, the evidence stacked around him, reminding David of a beer fortress. ‘You represent a group, David. You represent a specific set of ideals. This is about something more than yourself. If you want to drink your heart out, do it on your time.’

He still remembers the shame of that moment, that sense of being exposed, as if he were a man hiding beneath a costume. It surprises him that he would care about how they perceive him, but it does. He wants to be seen as a man with the right combination of compassion and righteous indignation.

He greets the group members and they ask him about his teaching.

‘It’s fine,’ is all he can say. ‘I like the students. They’re an inquisitive bunch. Really curious.’

Truth is a part of him despises them, finds them alien, finds it frustrating to connect. But to utter those words is to surrender to the past.

‘I’m happy for you, David,’ Mrs Drew says. ‘Sounds like you’re on track.’

Some of the group members ask David about Claire. They praise her past commitments. Her ability to get things done, to browbeat legislators from cowardice to action, her ability to frame issues in the simplest terms. The fact is he always admired this purpose in her. He was drawn to the ease with which she turned her focus outwards, away from herself, and her ability to tackle new causes. This is something he has long struggled with, this ability to think of life in terms of something other than his own niche in it.

David tells Mrs Drew that Claire’s happy, that he spoke to her last week. He makes up a story about her working for another justice group in the city. She has a high-ranking position and access to major political players, he says. He feels a little guilt.

‘She sends her greetings to you all,’ he adds, for good measure.

David hopes she’s happy in her own way. Someone needs to be, and by saying these words, it gives him a sense of possibility for himself. Perhaps, if he can just believe, things can be rectified. Perhaps he can climb out of his own cycle of destruction, and find that side of himself he’s lost, a side stored away in the recesses of his memory, but still accessible on some level.

‘She really brought a lot,’ Mrs Drew says, as they prepare to start the meeting. ‘I’m glad you’ve finally joined in too. I think you’ll bring a lot to the group.’

‘Thanks,’ is all David can say.

‘I mean that,’ she says. ‘She spoke highly of you.’

‘I doubt that,’ David says, a little too harshly. He smiles apologetically, feeling the awkwardness in the air, the scent of truth exposed. ‘Sorry. I’m still having a time of it.’

Mrs Drew smiles sadly, assures him it’s all right, and turns to the group. Rumpus time must cease. The business of justice must begin.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ Mrs Drew says. ‘We need to divide this as fairly and equitably as possible. I’m looking forward to marching onward.’

‘This is fucking great,’ David says, his enthusiasm catching him off guard. Mrs Drew smiles at him.

She is a petite woman in her mid-forties. She wears a black turtleneck and capri pants and smells like perfume, cigarettes, and something musky. An old library smell, perhaps. She seems like a natural do-gooder, the kind of person who protested even as a child. This is unlike David, who holed up reading accounts of marches past, battles won and lost, even as history marched past, unfurling its manifestos.

‘We need to ensure everyone has charge of a division,’ she says, taking a swig of a beer. She belches and lets out a little giggle. ‘One particular area to focus on. That doesn’t mean you can’t help your comrades in their great struggles. But I’d like you to focus on the tasks at hand for a reason.’

Connie DiCenzo nods, a little doubtfully. She is a painter herself, a graceful brunette whose obsession is bridging divisions, blurring the lines between race, sex, and age. She once painted a still life of a Mexican and a Tea Party member merging together, two bodies converging. ‘Lines are arbitrary,’ she always says. ‘So are walls.’

Mrs Drew smiles as if reading her mind. She goes on.

‘I’ve tried to be fair about this, basing my choices on everyone’s particular wisdom and experiences, from what I know of you all. I must say you’re all amazing.’

David nods, eager to hear the choices. He can practically hear a sort of vibrant hum in the lights, the conversations, a hum that will give way to a new force. He is eager to march into the streets, to the capitol building with its gleaming golden dome, eager to unfurl flags and banners. Make Love Great Again. He imagines running into his wife, current ex-wife, at a protest. He imagines the delight and surprise, discovering this man waving a sign, bellowing for justice, rather than grousing about the negativity in his life.

‘You surprise me, Davy,’ she’d say, using her favourite nickname, a nickname that connoted intimacy and possibility. He’d shrug, feigning modesty.

He imagines them reconnecting, talking ideas, talking about love and betterment instead of bills and David’s lack of interest in their marriage, and his obsession with booze. He imagines them making love again, his bulbous arms wrapped around her, graceful, exploring her sumptuous tanned figure, bodies moving in a kind of kaleidoscopic symphony. They’d tease each other, comparing the other’s day to their own, pretending to have had the worst day, like they used to back when negativity seemed entertaining and their marriage and hope were young. From there, they’d move on to buying a new home, one with a backyard, near a soccer field in some little suburb, a picture of tranquillity and uplift.

Now Mrs Drew takes a sip of her beer and announces the choices with a feigned exaggeration, as if reading the lottery numbers.

Frank Beachwood gets assigned to the racism division (‘I had a beer with Martin Luther King the night after the March on Washington,’ he claims). He must know everything about racism then. It rubs off from contact alone.

Frank greets this news by getting up and doing what he calls a ‘dance of poetic joy’.

David rolls his eyes. Frank Beachwood is a sanctimonious prick who flaunts his idealism and his vision of a ‘rainbow house of humanity’. He is also a poet and likes to fantasise about what would happen if Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman had a lovechild.

Connie DiCenzo gets sexism. ‘The pussy is mightier than the sword,’ she quips and the entire group breaks out laughing. David thinks he could tackle this as well, but he has one singular focus.

David wants to tackle homophobia. Claire would be proud. Claire used to lead the homophobia division, constantly coming home and complaining about human nature and the emptiness of arguments about gay rights, be it in the realm of protections, marriage, or as members of the clergy.

‘How the hell can anyone criticise their right to marriage?’ she would say, genuinely baffled, with an indignation that both shamed David and stirred in him a certain admiration, the facts playing with pride. This is my wife: she cares about the underdogs, the persecuted, anyone in trouble. ‘I mean, marriage is in crisis, but it’s because of cheating, apathy, selfishness. Not gays.’

At the time, David felt she was referring to theirs, to a marriage that had grown increasingly settled into a predictable routine, a sort of automated whirlwind. They’d go off to work (both were teachers), they’d come home, and they’d retreat into their webs of indifference. She might try to draw David out, get him to do something fun, perhaps go to a movie, but he’d make up some excuse, make any excuse, and too soon she’d retreat into the bedroom to work, with her Debussy playing softly.

His own marriage torn asunder, this fight to preserve equal marriage takes on a new kind of meaning for David. The thought of holding the banner for marriage, for the dignity of all, for an institution he’s fucked up seems somehow right. This is just, this is karma, he thinks, trying to right an institution he has weakened through his own follies. He sees it as a sort of unspoken apology to Claire, a way of proclaiming his sorrows.

David imagines himself challenging a fundamentalist, challenging their words, their ideas. He imagines the look of gratitude, the compliments he will receive from gay groups. It will be good to be recognised as something other than a whirlwind of failure, a man who cannot teach students and learn from his own shortcomings, cannot tell his wife that he loves her, wants the best for her, admires her intensely. He even imagines becoming a page in a history book, the words in commanding bold, proclaiming the facts. David Rabinowitz, gay rights hero.

Lars Lindstrom gets homophobia. Somehow this does not surprise David. But it still catches him off guard like a child in the path of an oncoming train. David is assigned child abuse, which Mrs Drew proclaims a little too cheerfully, as if she were speaking of a picnic in the park.

Lars is a blond thirty-something with sharp sea-blue eyes, a commanding gaze, and an energy that is both attractive and repulsive. Humility is not his strongest virtue. He is married to a guy named Bubba from Denver who owns a gun store, and he is an accomplished author and equal rights activist, a fact he constantly reminds the group about.

‘I wanted the homophobia division,’ David says, pathetically. He thinks of Claire, off on the horizon, growing more and more distant. He wonders what she is doing right this minute. Does she imagine him, his life? Or is she doing something better? Going on a date, finding someone passionate about everything, anything?

‘Lars, why don’t you take the child abuse division?’ he adds. He clutches his beer bottle tightly, like a child. ‘You’re Lutheran. This is your expertise. Aren’t they the ones who abuse all the kids?’

‘That’s Catholics,’ Connie DiCenzo says, matter-of-factly. ‘Although I’m sure there are plenty of Lutherans who do, too.’

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ Frank Beachwood says, quoting Martin Luther King. ‘Come on, David. This is a great opportunity. You’re still doing a great duty to the world.’

‘There aren’t Lutheran molesters?’ David says loudly.

‘Let’s not single out religions,’ Mrs Drew says. ‘The point is to foster dialogue and understanding. Even if the majority of molesting clergy are Catholic.’

She turns to David and tells him that taking charge of the child abuse division is an exciting opportunity. Filled with adventure.

‘Homophobia means a lot to Lars,’ Mrs Drew says. She leans over and pats David on the shoulder. She smells of booze, and David wants another fucking beer.

‘He lost his job last year, you know,’ she says, motioning with the grace of an aristocrat, or a woman from an era gone by. ‘The owner of that bookstore said he wasn’t comfortable with, what did he call it? Oh yes. The gay agenda.

Lars nods in acknowledgement. He tells the group that to unmask their hypocrisy, their supposed ‘values’, is his greatest goal. And he will make his voice heard. He is committed to every measure, to ensuring all voices resound. This does not surprise David. Lars seems to embody the perfect übermensch, the Nordic Superman, always involved in everything.

‘My dad said the meek inherit the Earth, but the obnoxious get the power,’ David says.

‘We’re here to make sure everyone gets the power,’ Mrs Drew says, nodding sympathetically, as a pool player lets out a loud whoop of victory, staring at the table with a certain satisfaction.

Thing is, David truthfully feels sorrow for Lars, deep and abiding. He can imagine the fear, the uncertainty of getting up, going to work, not knowing if the next day is his last. He can imagine the arguments, the tensions that might arise at Lars’s dinner table, the prospect of a marriage unravelling, yet again. He can imagine the anger, the weariness. He wants to take on homophobia for people like Lars. It is genuinely a plague bacillus, reproducing a thousand times over.

Plus the other elephant in the room: he doesn’t know how to deal with child abuse, how to take on a subject like that. He and Claire never had children (although they argued about it).

David liked children, liked teaching, liked trying to shape their appreciation of the world. He thought he was helping them see history as an ever-changing process, a series of possibilities and permutations, a process over which they could have some control in their own lives. But to dig into the minutiae of their lives seemed impossible. David couldn’t add up the minutiae of his own life, the cycle of success and failure, so how could he make sense of these students who had seen far worse? Abuse, drug-addled parents, abandonment, hormones.

‘I think I’d be better off dealing with homophobia,’ David says. ‘I feel just as strong about this. As strong as Lars. If not stronger.’

‘You can make the most of this,’ Mrs Drew says, shifting her half-empty beer bottle. Her voice holds a fakeness, a fakeness that conveys courtesy. ‘I’m sure you’ll do a fine job combatting child abuse. Go to the source. Combat it. Do it with peace and love.’

‘Claire said if you have enough anger, that’s all you need,’ Connie DiCenzo says, tapping her knuckles on the table.

He feels an anger rising, a sense of helplessness, a sense that he can never measure up to Claire. He feels it in their looks, their knowing looks, in their words. To these people, Claire is a legend, an institution in and of herself, and he exists on some plane below her. He’s tempted to walk out now, to retreat back into the old world, the predictability of drinking and job hunting. But Claire wouldn’t do this. He imagines Claire in a conflict, in the heat of a moment, tries to conjure the sense of peace, of reason she seemed to have in full supply. He can conjure this sense of harmony, he thinks.

‘Come on, Lars,’ David says, extending a hand as if playing peacemaker. ‘Let me take on homophobia. I’ll buy you a beer. Call it a bribe.’

‘Appreciate it,’ Lars says, leaning back, legs crossed. ‘But I’d really like to take this on. Plus, you know fighting homophobia is a tough process. You really need to know a lot about it, the ins and outs.’

David knows what Lars is saying. He is a straight forty-year-old man, therefore he cannot understand homophobia. This sounds like something his wife would say, about his inability to comfort her, his inability to be a good husband.

‘Like Claire, I suppose?’ The words slip from David’s mouth, and seem to hang over the bar with a kind of foreboding energy.

‘I didn’t mean that,’ Lars says, his eyes darting across the room. The jukebox in the corner plays Louis Armstrong, ‘What A Wonderful World’. Laughter rises from the bar, and a swarthy boy moves about the room, two White Russians in hand.

‘I’m part of the gay mafia,’ David says.

The words surprise him. But a part of David knows there is something hateful, something judgemental within him, a dark force, a part of him that characterises people from his lazy lairs. He used to tell Claire she was wasting time on her meetings, that she should pour her skills into something that would bear tangible results. He used to think this idea of selflessness, of giving of oneself, was a sort of annoying shadow, following him around.

Now, David thinks she’s right, feels like everything he’s worked for is merely average. The thought sickens him, makes him feel like he’s lost in a storm, with no place to go. He wonders where he might be now if he’d just listened, and the thought thrills and saddens him.

‘Please, David,’ Mrs Drew says, smiling, a forced, starched smile. ‘I just feel Lars would be best to tackle this. You’re a teacher. You can deal with child abuse. You know children. You work with them.’

‘I don’t deal with abuse issues,’ he says. ‘And let’s be honest here: I’m a shitty teacher. I drink. I can’t get half these kids to think about things.’

‘I’m sure Lars can use your help,’ Connie DiCenzo says, trying to play peacemaker as always. David admires and hates this about her. It reminds him too much of Claire. ‘Focus on the child abuse, though.’

‘I’m a shitty teacher,’ David bellows, staring into the crowded bar. ‘I can’t keep a job, or teach those kids a thing, so why would you think I could be good at this? I can’t even keep my marriage together.’

Mrs Drew motions for him to quiet down. People are looking up from their murmured conversations. He can only imagine what they think of him. They must picture him as a failure. A man consumed by his ego, as Claire once said, towards the end of his marriage. He feels shame and anger, anger at the fact that she could precisely measure his failures. His teaching. His life. All of it. She was like a detective, prying into his soul.

Staring at Lars, who leans forward with an almost perfect posture, a cool confidence, arms crossed, a thought rises to David’s mind. Is this the sort of man that his wife is with? Not a gay man, of course, but a cool, suave man with a healthy ego? A persecuted man fighting for his rights? Is that what she wants, deep within, to save someone? He doesn’t know why this thought reverberates, keeps playing, but it does. He imagines his Claire, his Claire with a Lars-like man. Perhaps they’re watching movies like he and Claire used to, perhaps this man is filling his old space, filling the void without shame. He imagines this Lars-like man and Claire hunched late at night, writing new chapters, forming new routines. And through all this, he is helpless, incapable of changing course. He wishes he could email her, text her, tell her that he is the one in need of saving, but he doesn’t want to admit this.

An anger rises within David which he can practically feel in his throat, as if he were some monster, transforming into his worst self. Any semblance of goodness has been thrown out the window.

‘Well,’ David says, staring at Lars, “if I can’t be a good teacher, then maybe I can be gay. What if I went and kissed a guy in this bar? Right now? Would you give up the division?’

‘David,’ Mrs Drew says. Frank Beachwood tries to counsel David with another quote from Dr King about loving one’s enemies.

‘I can be a fucking fruit,’ David barks. The words fly from his mouth.

He raises his hand and flicks it in an exaggerated gesture. The words fall fast, as though he has been consumed by a storm. ‘That’s what you want, isn’t it? If I can’t be as good as Claire, then at least I can beat Lars.’

He staggers and falls to the floor. Several people in the bar laugh, as though this is some sitcom and a laugh track is required. He feels as if he is in some battle from history, fallen, but not vanquished yet, even as he feels another force taking charge of him.

‘David, why don’t you go home?’ Mrs Drew says. ‘Don’t embarrass yourself. I know how you feel.’

‘Fuck feelings,’ he says. ‘I can do this better than Lars.’

‘David, this group isn’t about personal victory,’ Connie says. ‘It’s about us all contributing to a wider victory. I thought that’s what you wanted.’

David thinks of his marriage. He thinks of the possibilities that could have been. He thinks of where they might be now, him and Claire, the images swirling like an angry sea. They might be marching together, relishing their common cause, and they might be making fun of dysfunctional marriages, drinking beers, able to afford to be sanctimonious. David might be a better teacher, moved by her example. But these possibilities have all passed, and a part of him knows the brutal truth. She isn’t coming back. She has closed the door. David is history.

‘I’m Lars Lindstrom,’ he says, waving his hands. He leans against the pool table. ‘I’m persecuted. I’m gay. I need to advertise all this. I can’t solve my own fucking problems. I’m so helpless.’

‘That’s fucking enough,’ Mrs Drew snaps, her voice sharp, harsh like metal. It reminds David of Claire. ‘I think you’d better leave, David. You should be ashamed. You have no sense of what this group is about, what we want to achieve. I honestly thought you were better than this.’

David feels the ominous hum of the lights, the rumble of the freight train passing, and a wave of shame. He has crossed a line and cannot go back. History cannot be rewritten. Possibility is no more.

‘Take that back, dipshit,’ Lars says. He leans over and messes up David’s shirt, a swift, relentless gesture. ‘I don’t want to fight here. This is a house of peace and understanding.’

‘This is a fucking bar,’ David says. ‘And I’m not taking that back.’

He rises, walking around the pool table, the jukebox, his old familiar friends. He must win for once, a small victory, no matter how small. If nothing else, then to have some small form of control over someone like Lars, to have a hand in his own history.

David wants to play a song. Any song. Perhaps ‘Clair De Lune’ if they have classical. It was his wife’s favourite and they used to listen to it in bed, especially on bad nights when he had particularly difficult students to contend with. Normally, he looks back on this with a certain fervour, heightening the experience in his mind – the two of them in bed, surrounded by the tinkling piano notes spilling like tears – but now, in front of the jukebox, there’s a certain absurdity to it all. As if even then he was pretending, trying to rely on the past to keep his present alive, using a dead composer, as it were. As if the music spoke words that he couldn’t, words that told Claire how much he loved her.

‘David,’ Mrs Drew says, waving as if he is mentally impaired. ‘You need to apologise. Apologise and go home and sleep it off. We can talk later.’

An image of Claire comes to mind, telling him how pathetic he’d become, how absorbed in his own affairs. This was a month before she left, and he’d gotten into an argument with her over a movie they wanted to see. He can still see the disgust in her sea-blue eyes, the way she tossed her hair, the way she moved, the way she surveyed him like a detective.

‘Fuck off.’

Lars steps closer, fists clenched, demands that David apologise. David can hear determination, grit in his voice. Three decades of grit. Weariness. He cannot help but admire this, wishes he held this strength, especially in his constant quest for new jobs, new lovers, new everything.

‘Well?’ Lars says. David can hear his thick, heavy breath. It is steady yet rasping. He breathes in anticipation of the next moment, a moment within his control. He smells like onions and beer.

‘Kiss my ass.’

‘Say that again.’ Lars’s face has metamorphosed into a mask of rage, genuine and powerful.

‘Kiss my ass.’

Lars’s lips purse into a sneer, his brow furrowed. A moment later, his fist is flying through the air with absolute precision, filling the gap between the two in slow motion. It is like a truly bad movie.

David sees the fist flying, but he cannot recoil, cannot seek sanctuary. Maybe part of him doesn’t want to. Maybe he needs to meet this all head on. Maybe he deserves this. Maybe Claire would want him to take the punch. The thoughts float past like a cloud, the fist coming closer and closer.

Once the fist connects, David feels as if he is being propelled into uncertainty. His head strikes the jukebox with a certain force, glass shattering. He feels blood, warm and steady, oozing like a river. He feels the music come to a stop, a wonderful world no more. He sees people gather around, wearing looks of feigned shock. They are entertained, he knows. He is a spectacle to be gawked at. He remembers this from past fights. They will undoubtedly make up their own stories about this.

A drunk bastard got his due at a jukebox. That blonde guy knocked him out good. David imagines his Claire, somewhere, in a coffee shop, at home, on her computer, maybe, learning of this incident. He imagines her opening a paper, or hearing of it through a friend.

What happens next feels distant, like a movie he’s watching with Claire, like he’s on the outside looking in on the action. He thinks Mrs Drew utters words of disapproval, calls him a selfish bastard, says something about Claire and how ashamed she’d be. He thinks they shuffle away in disgust. All he wants to do is explain his life to them, a life of normalcy, of teaching, and then of sudden drift.

‘That’s a good punch,’ the bartender says to Lars. David is sure of this. ‘A real man’s punch.’

He rises slowly, trying to pick up all the pieces. He thinks of the real martyrs, the real heroes, Gandhi and King and Kennedy. And Claire. People who fought and even sometimes died in the line of service, who turned their dreams outwards and cast them into the world. He thinks of how fast things go, of how it seems like only yesterday he was in a long marriage, and the day before that he was just getting married, exchanging vows, pledging a happiness that he couldn’t keep. He thinks of the youthful excitement he wore that day, the way it slipped with year after year of marriage, until it transformed into a kind of apathy.

David walks outside, onto the front steps, as another train rushes by, whistling, a clarion call. He keeps walking, away from the bar, away from its empty seductive glow. He keeps walking, walking into neighbourhoods of quaint wooden-frame houses and oak trees and peaceful evening serenity, into worlds of domesticity and happiness that are lost to him. He tries to picture himself in five years. Maybe ten. Perhaps he will still be here looking out into the night. Perhaps he will be teaching or doing something else entirely. Maybe he will date again, maybe he’ll be alone. He wants to make the right choice, even if Claire isn’t around, feels the need to make a choice, and he keeps walking, waiting, waiting for some cosmic sign, some gesture, be it of love, hatred, approval, or disapproval.



For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.