In the Shade of a Bar

At last call, Moose Swanson rose from his stool in Mother’s Saloon and tossed four twenties on the bar, not knowing how much he owed and not caring. He strolled out the front door and onto the beach. At 6′ 6″ and 290 pounds, he got plenty of stares, especially when he peeled off his t-shirt, tossed it in the sand, and lumbered toward the water in nothing but his shorts and sandals. Thirty feet from the shoreline, he lay down on his side, breathed in the salty night air, and fell asleep.

He awoke briefly at 9 a.m., still lying on his side. From the corner of his eye, he caught a blurry glimpse of a little Japanese boy smiling at him. Moose croaked, “Go away, kid.” He closed his eyes and fell back to sleep to the sound of the boy’s chirping laughter.

At two o’clock, his eyes shot open. Half his body felt hot, swollen, and tight. He staggered to his feet and grabbed his t-shirt, which was exactly where he had left it. He walked back into Mother’s, found a mirror, and examined his face. It was a perfect bisection of red and white. In fact, most of his body was.

“Oh no,” he muttered.

“Purple Rain” was playing. Moose heard a drunk guy at a table behind him say to his friends, “If you don’t like Prince, then you don’t like to fuck.” Moose shook his head and signaled to the bartender. She walked up to him, looked him over, and said, “Poor thing,” but she was grinning when she said it. She poured him a shot of tequila and a beer and said, “Those are on me, hon.” Then she wandered down to the other end of the bar to take care of a new customer.

Moose looked to his right and noticed a slender young woman sitting just a few stools down. She was staring straight ahead at nothing in particular, and she seemed to be listening intently to something. Her head was covered by a tightly wrapped red and white bandanna with the knot tied at the crown of her forehead, and a yellow flower rested just above her left ear.

She turned to him and said, “What happened to you?”

“Can’t you see?” Moose asked.

“No I can’t.”

“Oh, OK. I understand. I’m sorry. Well, I fell asleep on the beach.”

“You don’t need to apologize. Do you hurt? I have some lotion.”

“No, I’m OK.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. “My name’s Audrey. What’s yours?”

Moose looked down at the tattoo on his left bicep. It was a pentagram with two points of the star facing up and a goat in the middle, all of which was inscribed inside two circles. He was glad Audrey couldn’t see it. “I’m Moose,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

They talked for a while. Among other things, Moose described how he’d just gotten out of the Army and was on a long road trip trying to find himself, figuring he’d wind up back home in Kansas City although this made him nervous because he didn’t want to return to some old habits that had caused him problems in the past. The girl he had almost married was still there and fighting through a nasty divorce with his former best friend. Moose didn’t know what he would do for work, either. Maybe get into law enforcement, or return to school to pursue some other career that would get him through. Audrey listened carefully and nursed her beer, seldom passing judgment or offering advice, mostly just listening.

Moose asked Audrey who took care of her. She said, “I take care of myself. I earned a degree in computer programming from SDSU a few years ago, and now I design and implement management applications for a local software company. I work out six days a week, and I take great, great pride in being mostly self-sufficient. I don’t take any government disability checks or financial aid either. I don’t even really see my disability as a disability. It’s a part of my life, like it or not. It just takes me a little longer to do certain things sometimes. Who takes care of you, Moose?”

Moose’s entire face turned red. He said, “Audrey, would you like to take a walk with me and show me around town?”

“I don’t know, Moose. Maybe,” she said. She drummed her fingers on the bar and hummed a little tune to herself, wondering if it would be worth the effort.