The clatter behind the stranger crescendoed as he clawed his way on hands and feet toward the door, ajar just enough to allow a thin haze to slice the bar's internal gloom, the dust particles within tumbling ever so slowly, as if they resided in another world altogether. Gelled urine, stale beer and boogers adhered to the stranger's shirt and pants as he proceeded, like a snowball gathering twigs and leaves. Roddy Granger couldn't care less: He needed to get the fuck out of that insane asylum.
With one hand, Estelle fished inside the defect at the back of the telephone booth and removed a frayed umbrella Lester had hidden along with her paintbrush years previously. She opened it, spun the top about, brushed the dust away, collapsed it and secured its clasp. Covering the distance to the bar stool in two strides, Estelle picked up her paint brush and wiped the dust off it as well. Lester watched her do all this, appearing to have just swallowed a whole grapefruit.
With the umbrella's handle, Estelle deliberately pushed her oily black bangs away from her face and pulled the red horned rims down onto the bridge of her nose. She cocked her head and affixed her two green eyes on Lester with a curious expression, much like an alien might in arriving on earth for the first time with the intention of collecting a specimen or two for probing. Without shifting her gaze, she spoke over one shoulder to the stranger who had almost reached the door.
"Leave this place, stranger, and don't so much as look back."
He didn't need to be told, although oddly, despite all the commotion and his frantic efforts to escape, he was experiencing an inner repose the likes of which was unfamiliar to him: Roddy Granger realized at that instant that all he ever wanted to be was a fraud investigator; "to live it and breath it," like Fred F'in Macmurray, "THE man" as far as he was concerned, and reason he got into this balls to the wall profession in the first place. It hadn't been about the money.
As Roddy Granger pushed that bar room door open and crawled out into the hazy light of the gravel strewn parking lot, that promise of a good life, of a life he was supposed to be living, the life depicted on billboards, of palms trees and 16 ounce glasses of freshly squeezed Florida orange juice, was now within his grasp. He had pointed at those very billboards from behind the wheel of his new Pontiac fifteen years earlier, when the kids were still in the backseat.
"THAT'S what I'm talking about, Marsha," he had proclaimed. "That right there. THAT'S what I'm talking about."
Marsha had squeezed his hand because THAT was what SHE wanted as well: ALL THAT.
"We'll get there, Roddy Granger. And you'll get us there, honey. We're depending on you, sweetheart. We're all depending on you. You still have your cross hairs on that Fraud Investigator position, don't you?"
"Like a Japanese Zero on the USS Ticonderoga!"
"That a boy! We'll get there. It'll just take a little time. Maybe a year or two more."
That conversation of fifteen years ago seemed like it had taken place yesterday although only last week Marsha had gone off on another one of her so called "retreats" with Roger Flanagan, the Roger Flanagan from sales. Another meditation retreat with Roger Flanagan just so, as she put it, Roddy could 'get on with his first assignment without any interruptions; so he could concentrate on the case at hand.'
She had said similar things to him in the past: 'I'm going on a retreat so you can concentrate, honey. I'm going with Roger Flanagan. You know Roger, from Sales?"
After skidding to a halt on that gravel strewn parking lot, Roddy Granger realized something else: "I don't WANT to fucking concentrate any more. I want to. . . to . . ."
Roddy Granger didn't know exactly what he wanted to do. In that blinding dirty sunlight, his thoughts were a jambalaya with fresh hot jalapenos tossed in the pot. Even though he didn't know precisely what he wanted, he knew what he didn't want. Well, he wasn't altogether sure of that either. Something had happened to him in that bar just then. Maybe it was the rock hard regulation NFL football sized stool he had to pass although he couldn't be sure. Whatever that something was, the something changed Roddy Granger's mind, and changed it with a capital C.
He shifted his weight onto one side and was in the process of kicking the door closed with one foot when he caught the ever-so-briefest glimpse of Estelle standing atop the bar directly above Lester, holding her umbrella in both hands far over his head. Just before the door drew closed, in an even more infinitesimal moment of recognition, he watched the umbrella's tip drive straight down into Lester's gaping mouth, and heard him issue a final grotesque and truncated cry.
Roddy Granger lay staring at the door a full minute after it shut, recalling the final glimpse of that wooden umbrella handle protruding from Lester's mouth, blood sputtering up around it like a coffee pot's first morning percolation.
Roddy Granger collapsed backward and lay on the gravel, brick and asphalt rubble, squinting directly at the hazy sun, which you were told not to do as a kid, squinted until he could no longer see anything at all. He did not understand what had just taken place inside Lester's Place and wasn't sure he wanted to understand. He shut his eyes tightly, regarding the bright ball which had just been burned onto his retina. He wasn't sure if he cared what had just happened in that bar. The sun was warm and a fly buzzed a little too close to one ear. Roddy Granger opened his eyes, as if for the first time and smacked himself on the side of the head.
He raised onto one elbow and scissored his legs back and forth, shifted and scissored them again. He turned over on one side, lifted his belt away then his underwear elastic, scooted his bottom out from under him and peered down into his tidy whities: Spotless. Not a skid mark nor hint of stool!
He regarded his shirt: Dry as a bone and smelling of fabric softener, the Purple Rainbow Marsha used. He arose and brushed himself off. The bar itself looked to have been closed for quite some time, its windows boarded with plywood and two by fours. Graffiti had been spray painted everywhere but not just yesterday, or the day before that,
Granger turned to examine his old Pontiac, the old beut he'd just kept running over the years because he couldn't afford to buy a new one. Thing was, refinancing his mortgage that year together with the new promotion to Fraud Investigator, earned him that two week vacay in Miami he and Marsha had been babbling about for years. All of it was within his grasp. The problem was, he couldn't give a fuck. But that was a good thing, a real good thing, what they told the kid in the Twilight Zone episode so he wouldn't turn them into jack-in-o-boxes: "A real good thing."
Driving away, Roddy Granger realized he hadn't addressed the issue of the insurance claim itself, his very first case in the field and the reason why he had showed up there in the first place. He rolled the window down and extended his arm, feeling the warm breeze and buffeting of the air. He decided to falsify the paperwork, to document that he had seen no evidence of a bear attack. He'd forge Lester's signature.
"Fuck that shit," he said aloud. The claim would simply be denied. "Lester's fucking shish- kabob," he said. It felt good to say it so he said it again, this time a little louder: "LESTER'S FUCKING SHISH-KABOB!"
He wouldn't mention Lester’s last truncated shriek in the memo, of course, nor the woman's oily bangs, the restroom, the telephone booth, the paintbrush, umbrella, none of it. Just that there was no evidence of a bear attack.
Roddy Granger’s children graduated from high school and he settled down with Marsha. Yeah, she had been having an affair with that guy from Sales. Roddy Granger couldn't have cared less. They started drinking martinis every night, Marsha and him, good stiff ones.
"All that's part of the American Dream anyway, am I right, boys," he'd tell them all in the coffee clutch. "All of it part of the same goddamn fucking LIE!"
Whenever he passed Flanagan from sales, he'd always call out. "Marsha said you had big time problems with impotence, sniveling little shit eating turd bucket!" And he'd laugh heartily. Turns out Roddy Granger became one of the most popular fraud investigators on the floor and eventually made supervisor.
"Who the fuck cares, Jones or Smith or whatever your name is. Why don't you just get on with it," was his favorite line. The junior investigators all liked to quote him. He was their Fred F'in Macmurray and they loved him for treating people based on his own jaded version of the golden rule: "If it's good enough for you, then its good enough for the next guy. Now fuck off."
Roddy Granger, now head of Fraud, never did forget his first assignment; how that raven haired MILF had so urgently whispered to him; how he'd eaten his church bulletin in that stinky restroom; then pretended to be constipated and all of a sudden became constipated and passed that football sized stool and not finding it in his pants when he finally got out in the parking lot. Never told a soul, but turned out to be the highlight of his career. He often wondered, what if? What if he had turned back that day and gone back in? He didn’t know what that road would have entailed, that left hand turn at Albuquerque. The fact was he hadn't. He kind of suspected the whole incident messed him up mentally, and messed him up bad, placing doubt where doubt should never have been placed, making him want to question the meaning of life and the American Dream itself. But it made him the popular guy that he was and kept Marsha second guessing him too with all that erratic and senseless behavior from that point on, his investing in all that cryptocurrency then buying that VPN so he could surf the dark web; the novels he wrote under various pseudonyms, novels that didn't make sense to her and didn't make sense to him either.
“Is there something I need to know?” She started asking him.
“No. Nothing. How about another martini?”
But even after years have passed, Roddy Granger still couldn't help but think about that restroom alcove, where it all had begun, and Estelle’s hands, flittering to and fro. Every now and then, he had to hit his head and hit it hard, over and over right down in the middle of his TV tray with his TV dinner sitting on it getting Salisbury Steak gravy and diced carrots all over his cheeks and chin.
"What are you doing now, Roddy Ranger, hitting your head like that? That’s too hard, Roddy. Dr. Phil talks about brain contusions and uh huh, that’s not the road you want to travel down."
"You're right, Marsh."
At time like those, Roddy Granger would simply put it all out of his mind, put Estelle out of his mind, put Lester out of his mind, the umbrella, the truncated shriek, the whole bloody kit and caboodle out of his mind, until one day, ten years after it happened, he was called upstate to investigate a claim of a dead pet. . . and it all came back to bite him on the ass.