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Understanding by Ray Printer Friendly

"Do you know what it is to dream?"

"I have dreams all the time. Just last night, I had a dream where my toilet came alive and tried to bite off my dick."

She does that thing, that look, calling him an asshole, but doing it with her eyes so she doesn’t have to swear.

“When people get all deep and philosophical in movies,” he says, “It sounds good. In real life, it sounds cheesy and naïve.”

“When did you get so hateful towards the world?” It’s a rhetorical question, and she is surprised when he answers.

“When I was three.” He doesn’t register her surprise, just lights another cigarette, and then knocks back his shot. He slams the glass against the bar. “Barkeep! Another!”

“Quite calling me that,” she says. “And don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

“That was my first shot.”

“With people like you, one is probably too many.”

“‘People like me?’ You’re such a racist.”

“A, no I’m not. B, we’re the same race. C, I didn’t mean race, I meant idiots who get all belligerent. Scratch that—idiots like you who are always belligerent.”

He knocks back his second shot. “I may be belligerent, but you’re just hateful.”

“Look at yourself, John.”

“That’s not my name anymore, I told you.”

“I’m not calling you Razorblade.”

“Just Razor. And do it—it’ll be cool.”

“No, it’ll be stupid.”

“Now who’s being belligerent?”

“Booze isn’t going to solve your problems, John.”

“It’s Razor. And it might, if you’d pour a little faster.”

“I’m tired of watching you come in here night after night and drink yourself stupid.”

“Then quit. I was here drinking before you were here pouring.”

“I miss her too, you know.”

“No!” He slams his shot glass onto the bar and stands up. His sudden rage and volume has drawn the attention of the other drinkers as well as the bouncer.

The bar’s a quiet one, and the owner likes to keep it that way. Mellow music playing at just the right volume—people can talk to each other without screaming, but it’s loud enough to let them know that they’re out doing something. The clientele is a pretty laid-back group, and the low rumble of conversation is usually only broken by sudden laughter or a cry of surprise.

Violent behavior is not tolerated, and even a long-term regular like John will be thrown out for getting rowdy.

Sasha glances at the approaching bouncer and gives a slight head shake, signaling to him that she has it under control.

“Oh, fuck it,” John mutters, “I could use some violence tonight.” He knocks back his third shot and looks at the bouncer. “Come on, Scott! Bring that shit! You think you can take me? Come on!”

The bouncer shakes his head in an I-really-didn’t-want-to-do-this kind of way, and begins walking towards the bar again.

“Yeah, big man,” John goads. “Let’s see what you got.” As he yells, he reaches into his pocket and brings out a handful of bills. He counts out enough to pay for his drinks, as well as a tip, and drops it on the bar. Then he raises his fists in a boxing posture.

“Johnny, let’s not do this, okay, bud?”

“You want me outta here, you’re gonna have to drag me outta here.”

“And do you think that’s going to be a problem for me?” Although John is a big man, the bouncer is bigger. Leaner, tighter, in better shape. Confident, like he knows how to handle himself in a fight. He should—he’s been doing it his entire life.

John shrugs. “Well, no. But still.”

“How about you just calm down, we’ll go outside, have a smoke, and you can go home to sleep it off?”

“He’s only had three drinks,” Sasha says. “And he just had them a second ago.”

“Oh,” Scott says. “Well, shit.” And swings a right hook that knocks John from his feet, over a table, and onto the floor. He walks over and picks up the unconscious body and carries it out of the bar.

“Cheesy fuck. What happened to me?” The words come out slurred and deformed. Out of focus, he thinks.

He looks around and sees that he is on a couch. He sees it because the sun is streaming through the window.

“Fucking Scott, you cocksucker,” he mutters.

“I had to do it, bud,” Scott calls from the kitchen.

John jumps, startled. He looks over and sees Scott drinking a glass of juice. “You piece of shit. I can’t believe you punched me.”

“I knocked your ass out, is what I did. It was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself.”

“You rat fuck piece of shit.”

“Oh, come on. You weren’t even drunk and you were already yelling at Sash. What was I supposed to do? Besides, you told me to bring it on.”

“Well, yeah, but I thought you’d try to talk me down a little more.”

“Doesn’t pay off when you’re like that.”

“My face feels like it has bees living inside it.”

“Yeah, you look like shit. I got you pretty good.”

“My head hurts, too. And my shoulder. And my shin. Pretty much everything, really.”

“Ass over teakettle is the term, I believe. You almost cleared a table.”

“I can’t think of the words to express how shit you are.”

“You get out of hand, John. You get worked up, you’re hard to manage. Would you rather wake up here or in jail?”

“Hard to say, really. Wherever the odds of getting ass-raped are the lowest. So I guess that would probably be jail.”

“Ha fucking ha. Speaking of which, Steve is still asleep, so keep your voice down.”

“I thought you guys broke up. You got any coffee?”

“We’re trying the just-friends thing. And I only have decaf.”

“I wonder if you’ll burn in a hotter hell because you’re gay or because you have such lousy taste in coffee.”

“Did Jesus ever say anything about coffee?”

“That one time, I think he turned decaf into real, right? Just before he speared that Roman for being all gay?”

“Blasphemers like you running around and people say I’m the one going to hell.”

“Where are my cigarettes?”

“I hid them.”

“Why the fuck would you do that?”

“Because I always tell you not to smoke in here, and you always do it anyway, so I just hid them. I’ll give them back when you leave.”

“I thought you and Steve broke up.”

“You said that already. I told you, we’re just friends.”

“Why is he still asleep in your bed, then?”

“A gentleman never talks.”

“Gay guys don’t count as gentlemen, do they?”

“You’re such an ass.”

“If you two are just being friends, why are you banging?”

“John, don’t try to understand the gay community. You barely understand your own people.”

“You can say that again. Listen, man, I’m sorry about last night. Thanks for taking care of me. Not anally violating me and all that. After beating the shit out of me, I mean. I think my jaw is broken.”

“It isn’t. And no sweat, bringing you back here. Least I could do, I figured. Listen, I know you don’t want to hear any of this-”

“Then don’t say it.”

“We all miss her, Johnny.”

“Seriously, man, just shut up.”

“She was my sister, bud. You think I don’t miss her?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! She was your sister, she was Sasha’s best friend, she was Darlene’s daughter! Fuck! You don’t think I know that? She was something to everyone! But she was everything to me. Everything. And you know you have when you lose everything? You got nothin’, Scotty.”

“You’ve got people who care about you. Don’t forget that.”

“Where are my fuckin’ smokes?”

Scott picks the pack up from the top of the TV and tosses it to him. “Good seeing you again. Don’t be a stranger.”

“Thanks again, big guy.” He leaves before Scott can say anything else.

People keep looking at him, so his face is probably worse than he thought. Shit. Scott. That asshole. Plus, he’s pretty sure he had more cigarettes than this, so the jerk probably even snagged a few. Asshole.

He decides to stop in and get another pack, maybe some aspirin—his face is throbbing with every beat of his heart. Water, too—he didn’t get drunk enough to be dehydrated, but he was probably mouth-breathing all night long, considering how dry and scratchy his throat is. Getting your face mashed probably plays all kinds of hell with your breathing.

He sees a place about half a block down on a side street, and heads that way.

He grabs a bottle of water from the refrigerated display case and a packet of aspirin from the little rack by the cash register. He’s standing in line behind a woman and her little girl—the little girl is taking an annoyingly long time to choose what flavor of candy she wants—when the door opens and the shouting begins.

“Nobody fuckin’ move!”

The woman immediately begins screaming, and tries to pull her child behind her.

“What’d I say, bitch?” The man steps forward, holding the pistol out in front of him, tilted to the side like in the gangsta movies. He fires, he'll probably break his nose. Fucking idiot. He has a bandanna tied around his face, and he’s wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. Baggy-ass jeans and a plain white t-shirt. His voice is high, he's probably not more than fifteen years old. “I told you not to move!”

“You!” the kid yells, aiming at the man behind the counter. “Empty the drawer, ‘fore I kill your ass! You,” he says, turning back to the woman, “Gimme your purse. Now, bitch!”

She’s wailing now, but she manages to untangle her purse from her arm and hand it over.

“Gimme your wallet,” he says to John.

John hands the kid his wallet. “Don’t suppose you’d mind leaving me enough to pay for some smokes?”

“Shut the fuck up!”

He always wondered what he would act like in this kind of situation. Would he be terrified? Would he cry and beg? Would he try to be a hero? As it turns out, he’s just like he is every day since she died—a little sad, but mostly gray. Nothing is important, nothing is vibrant, nothing means anything.

The kid turns back to the guy behind the counter. “Didn’t I tell you hurry the fuck up? Ten seconds, I blast your ass and take that goddam money myself!”

That’s when the little girl drops her sucker. The sucker she has just spent three minutes trying to decide on. It hits the floor and bounces. The little girl lunges for it. Kids are so fucking stupid, John thinks, and he realizes that the kid with the gun is turning, panicking. About to shoot, no matter what he sees.

In books, they always say it was like time slowed down. In movies, they show it in slow motion. In real life, it goes just like shit always goes.

John dives without thinking, and the woman screams and the gun fires.

He hits the floor, and pain floods his body—not from a bullet, but because that asshat Scotty knocked him ass over teakettle last night. He opens his eyes and sees blood splatter the front of the counter. Sees the kid with the gun flee from the store.

“John. Wake up.”

He opens his eyes. All the way, which means the swelling in his face must’ve gone down some. In fact, his body doesn’t hurt at all.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the voice that spoke. He looks around and sees her.


“Hey, John.”

Her images blurs, and it takes him a moment to realize that his eyes have flooded with tears. He wipes them away.

“Baby? Baby, I’ve missed you so much!”

“I know you have, John. I know.” She steps to him, and takes him in her arms. He hugs her back, and he remembers that this is exactly how it felt. He squeezes her tighter, and more tears pour from his eyes.

“I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you so much.” He wants to say more, but can’t think of anything better. “Oh, Sarah, I love you.”

“I love you, too. But I need you to listen to me right now, sweetheart.” She pulls back. Not much, but enough so that she can look him in the eye. “John, it’s not your time.”


“It’s not your time. Sweetie, I know you miss me, but you have to live life, okay? It’s a precious gift, and there’s still a lot for you out there, if you look for it.”

He glances around. White. Of course it’s white. The afterlife is so cliché. White nothingness as far as the eye can see. Sarah is dressed in a flowing white robe. He’s dressed in his same dirty-ass clothes from last night, covered in who knows what from the bar floor. His jacket smells like cigarette smoke.

“I can’t live without you, Sarah.”

“Yes you can, baby.”

“Please don’t make me leave.”

“It isn’t up to me. I love you, John. Remember that, okay? And remember that life is a gift.”

“I love you, too, baby.”

Not cigarette smoke, that’s not what that smell is. Cordite. And piss. And cheap floor cleaner.

He opens his eyes and sees the clerk leaning down over him. The guy shouts and jumps back.

“You’re alive!” he yells.

John sits up, and a wave of pain wracks his body. Fucking Scott. “Yeah, I guess you could call it that.”

“I don’t know if you should be sitting up,” the woman says. She’s hugging her little girl, who is still wailing.

“I think that every morning.”

“No really,” says the clerk. “You got shot in the head, man.”

John lifts up his hand and feels nothing but hair.

“Other side.”

“Ah.” He touches the other side and it stings like a wicked bitch. His fingers come away bloody. “Is the bullet still in there?”

“No, it didn’t go through your head or anything, I don’t think. Just nicked the side of your head and then hit that fruit drink display over there.”

John looks, and sure enough, there’s a hell of a mess behind him. Not blood splattering on the counter—fruit drink. John stands up, waits for the dizziness to pass, and then looks around.

“You got your purse back,” he says to the lady.

“Yeah, he dropped it when he ran out.”

“He drop my wallet?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Fuckin’ figures. Listen, I don’t suppose you’d pay for my stuff, huh?”

“Of course. You probably just saved my baby’s life.”

“Hunh.” He picks up his water and the packet of aspirin, and looks at the clerk, who is still standing beside him. “This water, this aspirin—well, I’m gonna go ahead and get two of those, since I got shot in the head and all—and two packs of Marlboro Reds. In the box.”

“Don’t you think you should wait for the paramedics?”

“Nope.” He reaches across the counter and grabs a couple packs of cigarettes from the wall display. “The nice lady said she’ll cover for me.”

He glances down at the woman as he walks to the door. She’s holding her daughter close, like treasure, like the most important thing ever. Like he used to hold his wife. “Take it easy.”

He walks past the first subway entrance. It’ll be another eight blocks before he gets to another one, but he doesn’t care. He has some shit to ponder.

As he walks, he keeps waiting for the love of life to fill him. This is his second chance, right? And didn’t his dead wife tell him he should take advantage of it? He looks around, hoping the world will be a brighter place, more colorful. More amazing, more beautiful. More...worth living.

It’s still the same shade of gray, though, and he still feels like shit.

Nothing has changed, except for now his headache is worse.

He lights a cigarette and curses himself for passing by the subway station.


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