This is the second installment in an ongoing fictional storyline. The first installment can be found at Born of Smoke and Flame.
There must be order in chaos, even when we can’t see it. I pull my scarf and the collar of my coat more tightly around my neck as I watch the clumps of snow fall between the thin curtain of sleety rain. A few days of above-freezing temperatures have spoiled Green Bay with the insincere promise of Spring, and now we’re left feeling like fools.
There are no fluffy flakes today, no shimmering blanket of white dust to cover the ground. This snow, where and when it falls, falls in what can best be described as “glops”. There is a seemingly random quality to the frequency of the glops, but in another way, it doesn’t seem random at all. It’s as if there’s a bigger plan for them that I’m just not able to see quite yet.
My face is cold, but I threw my balaclava away after the fire. I couldn’t risk that any of my clothing from that night would be found. I’ve not been able to bring myself to buy a new one.
Word of the fire won’t seem to die here in Navarino, and I’ve even begun hearing it around other parts of Green Bay. Sometimes when Cliff talks about it, it almost seems as if he suspects my involvement, but he’s also not said enough for me to know that for sure. As I turn the corner to head for the door to the bar, I notice that his rusty old Chevy pickup isn’t in the parking lot.
There are no customers in the bar when I walk in, and Helen’s standing at the opposite end, watching what appears to be a soap opera. There’s a dingy white bar rag in her hand, but from the looks of the bar top, she’s not done much with it yet.
It’s a few moments before she notices me, and I don’t interrupt her. I don’t need a drink that badly yet. Her eyes first widen in surprise when she does finally turn around, and then her face settles into a kind of defensive scowl. “They’re better than ours,” she grumbles jerking her head backward toward the television. The program is in Spanish, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t speak it.
She offers an impatient look that suggests that I should order my drink without her asking what I want. “Scotch,” I croak hoarsely, “with no ice.”
She grabs a glass and a bottle and begins pouring without looking at either. The glass is probably pretty grimy, but I don’t care. “Buncha bullshit in here last night,” Helen says to the air. I hadn’t asked, but now I feel involuntarily obligated.
“Oh yeah?” I ask half-heartedly, hoping she’ll catch the drift that I’m not really interested in either this story or in really talking at all. She doesn’t.
“Yeah,” she continued, “Bill and Tina sat over there and bitched at each other all night.” She pauses briefly for dramatic effect and then expounds when she senses it may not have landed as effectively as she’d hoped. “Some people even walked out just to get away from them.” I can’t be sure if this is conjecture or if someone told her that explicitly, but I also don’t care.
Helen is undeterred. The story is underway now, and it won’t end until she says what she intends to say. “They were here clear until after everyone else was gone. Then, a few minutes after they finally did leave, some girl comes in and tells me Bill’s beating the shit out of Tina out in the parking lot.”
I recoil a little as the image forms in my mind. “I hate that shit,” I growl irritably.
Helen shrugs and tosses her bar rag on the ledge of the bar. “I was going to call the cops, but they took off before I could.” I grunt my disapproval and take a long, hard, slow sip of my Scotch.
We sit there in silence for a few moments before Helen returns to her Spanish language soap opera. I turn my gaze to it too, for a moment, but then my mind starts to wander, and I find myself thinking back to the fire.
I’d been cutting through back lawns to avoid attracting another public intoxication charge when I came upon the house. The flames were so bright and so loud that I couldn’t understand how I’d not noticed it sooner. Commotion and lights streamed around the corners from the front of the house, and I had crept closer to catch part of the action without drawing too much attention to myself. That was when I saw him in the window.
I snap back to reality from the memory when Helen blurts out, “Oh, great…” unnecessarily loudly. I look at the window and see a car pulling in, but I don’t recognize it. It’s not Cliff’s truck, and that’s the only vehicle I’d be able to identify here.
“What?” I ask, mostly instinctively.
“Looks like they’re back for Round 2.”
I don’t ask for clarification, but it is fairly evident when they burst through the door. I’ve seen them both in here before. They’re always either hanging all over each other or they are at each other’s throats. I wouldn’t have been able to come up with their names on my own, but since Helen mentioned Bill and Tina not long ago, I make the connection fairly quickly.
They’re already shouting as they come in, and Tina is thrusting her face toward Bill in a way that makes me edgy. He abides it for a second or two before freezing stone still and giving her a steely stare, “I ain’t gonna tell you again, Tina.”
Immediately she flinches and shrinks backward. “I’m sorry,” she says quickly, “I am.” There’s something bad here, something ugly, and it is already eating at me.
“Get over here,” Bill snarls at her, grabbing her roughly by the elbow, dragging her to the closest barstool, and shoving her forcefully down into it. I start to get off my stool when Helen lays her hand on my arm, signalling me to sit back down. I glance at her in defiance, but she mouths an exaggerated and emphatic “no!” at me.
For the next 10 minutes, I struggle to contain myself while Bill mercilessly berates and threatens TIna. I glance up and even occasionally stare for a couple dozen seconds at a time, but he’s too wrapped up in verbally assaulting her to notice. Helen, meanwhile, moves to keep me at bay every time I even shift on my stool.
There’s a burning sensation rising in the back of my head. I’m aggravated and want to lash out. Every cross word he speaks to her grates against my nerves. My breathing becomes shallow, and I close my eyelids now and then to try to drown him out.
Finally, Tina makes the mistake of pointing out that she’s not really done anything wrong. “Woman,” he shouts at her, standing off of his barstool and staring down at her, just inches from her face, “you’re gonna get the same beating tonight you got last night.”
My stomach flips, and the muscles in my arms, legs, and back clench painfully. Slowly, I rise from my barstool and don my coat, hat, and gloves. I’m already out the door and back into the icy sleet before I finish cinching my scarf around my neck.
It may be true that Spring is right around the corner, but for now the weather is still harsh in Green Bay, and I’m going to need a new balaclava.