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27/03/2020 / Harry Browne

Do Not Go Gentle by Stephen Brady


East Kansas

He’d had a bad day and just needed something to make him feel better.
In Driscoll’s line of work the bad days had become more and more frequent, and the good days few and far between. He was a sales rep for a firm that wholesaled industrial cleaning products. And right now, no-one seemed to want to buy what he was selling. The orders were drying up, and his list was getting shorter. He just couldn’t close the deals. At Head Office his name was officially Mud. A cloud was hanging over Mike Driscoll, and these days he could almost see it in the rearview.
And this had been a particularly bad day. So when he saw the roadhouse, perched on the edge of a sea of rippling corn, he didn’t hesitate. He pulled off the highway and into the dirt parking lot. He got out of the Lincoln and stretched, hearing his spine crackle. While the dust settled he took a look around.
The place was a typical roadside bar. Typical at least, for this godforsaken part of the world. Two gas pumps stood unattended out front. A battered sign creaked in the breeze:

Billings’ Texaco
H’way 89
Gas and Sundries

Driscoll hitched his trousers, crossed the parking lot and went inside.
The bar was dark as all-hell. The only light came from a big old T.V. set perched on a shelf above the end of the bar. There were three or four patrons holding down barstools, and none of them looked up when Driscoll entered.
He crossed the floor, which was slashed with strips of faint light from the crooked blinds on the windows. In his cheap sportcoat and tie, he imagined he looked out of place. Like some fag from back East., the hicks might say. But none of them glanced in his direction.
He settled himself onto a stool and propped his elbows on the scarred wood.
The barkeep sidled over.
“Help you?”
He was a big old boy in a dirty apron and a squat paper chef’s hat. Driscoll imagined he was the short-order cook too, although it didn’t look like much was cooking around here.
Driscoll cleared his throat.
“Gimme a straight bourbon, on the rocks.”
“You got it.”
While the barkeep slowly went for the bottle, Driscoll took a look around. There was no-one in here apart from the barflies. Of which, he supposed, he was now one. A Miller Lite sign blinked intermittently overhead. A fan blew and rotated back and forth in the corner, but it didn’t do much for the stifling heat in the place. A smell permeated the barroom, rich and timeless, seductive. An old football pennant was stuck into a beermug, by the register.

Bucks Co.
District Champs 1977

Then he saw himself in the backbar mirror, in a gap between two bottles.
Christ, he looked beat. His face was pale and pinched. His hair was longer than it should have been, and curled down over his collar. The jacket hung loose on his skinny frame. Mike Driscoll looked like a man who had been rundown by a truck, and gotten back up again to keep going.
And the worst of it is, he thought, that’s how I feel too.
“Bourbon, rocks.” The barkeep brought his drink and laid a napkin down on the bar. He watched, eyes cool and detached, as Driscoll raised the glass, looked at it, then drained half of it at a gulp.
“Bad day, huh?” the barkeep said. He did not sound especially interested.
“You said it,” said Driscoll. He set the glass down and smacked his lips. “Feels like nothing but, lately.”
“I hear that. Guess it’s about the same all over.”
“I guess it is.”
“Ain’t from around here, are you?”
“No, sir. Just passing through.”
The barkeep nodded. “That’s all most folks ever do. Them what’s got an ounce o’ sense, anyway.”
Driscoll glanced around. “I don’t know. This doesn’t look like the worst place.”
“No? Wait until you been here your whole life, an’ then some.”
Driscoll laughed.
The barkeep left him to his thoughts. Driscoll drank, again. He was beginning to feel a little better. Mellower, more centrered.
He thought briefly of his dwindling order book, and pushed the thought away. He thought of Scully, up there at Head Office, chewing his ass out. He dismissed that thought too. And he thought of the gallon tubs of cleaning fluids in his trunk that would never be sold. That thought was harder to dismiss, because he would be able to feel the weight of them when he got back in the car. And pulled back onto that endless highway.
Fuck it, he thought, and the thought was a pleasant one. I’ll just stay here. Drink bourbon and shoot the shit with my new buddies. And I’ll keep drinking and keep talking and it’ll get dark and the sign outside’ll get lit up. And maybe the occasional truck’ll pass on the highway, and we’ll hear it but not see it. And it’ll just be like that, forever.
The way I feel right now, I could stay here ’til Doomsday.
The sound of the T’.V. was beginning to impinge on his reverie. A reporter was talking in urgent tones, over a crackly connection. Driscoll glanced at the screen. The picture was poor, and shimmered with static. Tanks were rolling through a forest. They looked like American tanks.
The three barflies were watching the T.V. closely. The barkeep was looking at it, too.
Driscoll felt a twinge of something, in the pit of his stomach.
“What’s going on, Pops?” he asked the barfly nearest to him.
“Helluva ruckus,” the old man grunted. “Eastern Germany.”
“Damn Reagan,” said another. “That asshole shoulda taken out them bastids when he had the chance.”
“Shuttup Duke,” said the first barfly.
“What’s going on over there?” Driscoll asked, moving closer to the T.V. The screen now showed a wire fence, and fighter planes taking off in the distance. Against a low and thunderous sky.
“Well,” the first barfly said, “they reckon them Russkies got missiles where they shouldn’t do. In range of our airspace, or some shit. I ain’t familiar with the details. But there’s been a lotta holler about it since last night.” Now he turned to look apprasingly at the stranger. “Damn, buddy. Where the heck you been?”
“On the road,” Driscoll said distractedly. The screen now showed crowds of protestors, somewhere. Dark people shaking fists. Soldiers in camoflague surveyed them impassively. A rocket launcher mounted on a jeep. “I’ve been driving the last three days. My rental car, the radio doesn’t work. Been staying in motels, ain’t turned on a T.V.”
“Well, you shoulda,” said the second barfly. The third one didn’t speak at all, just stared at the T.V. in horror. “‘Cos this here is Armageddon. Right here. On primetime T.V.”
“Oh will you knock it off Duke,” said the barman. “It’s a ruckus, that’s all. Been all this bullshit ever since Cuba. More or less. It’ll blow over.”
On th screeen now were frightened-looking people holding candles. Some sort of prayer vigil. Driscoll drained the rest of his drink.
“One more?” said the barkeep.
Driscoll hesitated. He thought of his order book, and the tubs sitting in his trunk.
“Sure, why the hell not.”
“One for the road.”
“Yeah.” He looked back at the T.V. “One for the road.”
On screen now, was a picture of the Pentagon. Helicopters circled, back and forth. And then there he was, old Ronnie Ray-guns himself. He was standing at a podium. Cameras flashed. Old Ronnie said something and grinned.
“Damn fool’s still crackin’ jokes,” said Duke. “At a time like this.”
Driscoll picked up his fresh drink and took a gulp. He realised he was leaning his full weight on the bar now. The strength seemed to have gone out of his legs.
“Say,” he said to the barkeep, “can we get sound on this thing?”
The guy shook his head impassively. “The dial is busted. I never did find the damn remote.” He shrugged. “Ain’t normally nothin’ worth listenin’ to anyhow.”
Now the picture showed missiles, long and slender and dark olive-green, blasting off from a field somewhere.
“Them’s ours,” said the first barfly. “You can bet the farm on it. There they go, boys. Hallelujah.”
“They ain’t ours,” said the barkeep.
Duke said, “I believe I’ll have me another beer.”
“Hey,” Driscoll said. “Are these, uh… live pictures?”
“Naw,” said the barkeep, drawing the beer. “This here’s just the update. All this shit happened maybe a half-hour ago. Just before you came in.”
Now a map of the globe had appeared on the T.V. screen. Flashing yellow dots were scattered across it.
“Excuse me,” said Driscoll, to no-one in particular. He drained his drink and went outside.
He stood in the parking lot, feeling the air on his face. The wind had died down a little. Clouds of dust flew past his ankles and disappeared.
He looked to the south. Past his rented Lincoln, off to the horizon. The corn waved and rippled, vast and restless as an inland sea. Stormclouds massed low on the horizon.
He’d had a bad day. All he’d been looking for was something to make him feel better.
He walked out to the edge of the empty highway. Looked out across that vast and restless sea of corn. Eyes fixed on those dark and patient clouds.
Just a drink. That’s all he’d wanted. He’d had two, so maybe, just maybe, he’d come out of this thing ahead.
It had grown quiet. Quiet and still.
One for the road.
He thought of something, a snatch of poetry he’d heard years before. But he couldn’t capture it. It just slipped away on the breeze.
Faintly, from far above, there came a sound. A kind of drone, high and shrill. A scream in the stratosphere. It began to grow louder as it drew down toward the Earth.
He thought about Head Office. About the sales board and the order book.
Thin ice, Driscoll, Scully’d said. You are officially on thin ice, my friend.
He could still taste the bourbon in his mouth.
He smiled a little.
And when the impact came he sank to his knees and raised his arms in welcome.

One Comment

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  1. Roy McCarthy / Mar 28 2020 1:27 pm

    Nicely done Stephen. Pity though, Driscoll would have made a fine main character for someone but you done nuked him 🙂

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