A novel by EJ Spode.
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn
In the week following the encounter with Pauly I spent my time hanging out at a dive bar called the Welcome Inn in Tea, South Dakota. In the last couple years it’s become trendy for my Sioux Falls friends – my high school and college friends – to go to shitty dive bars in shitty towns about fifteen to thirty miles outside of Sioux Falls. We started going to these places because they card light and being loyal customers we stayed with the dives when we turned legal. I had been hanging out at the Welcome Inn primarily because of the bartender Kali – I was completely jonesing for her.
When I arrived in Tea on the seventh day of my jonesing there were no parking places in front of the bar, so I had to park down the street and then walk a couple blocks in fuckall cold. As I stepped in out of the cold and into the bar the first thing I noticed was the warm, humid air and the smell of spilled beer and melted prairie snow. My glasses immediately fogged the fuck up.
Because of my fogged-the-fucked-up glasses I couldn’t see very well, but I could hear the excessively optimistic chorus of “Next Girl” by The Black Keys playing on the jukebox:
My next girl
Will be nothing like my ex girl
I made mistakes back then
I’ll never do it again
With my next girl
She’ll be nothing like my ex girl
I could also hear Sonny the bartender at the near end of the bar cracking open bottles of beer and working people for tips with his cloyingly folksy way of speaking. He was using expressions like “Hey Tom, how’s it hanging”, and “Y’all ready for another?” A group of girls at a nearby table were laughing, and the crack of pool balls was emanating from the back of the bar. Whoever was back there had a thunderbolt break. Even through my foggy lenses I could see the brightly colored neon lights that were hyping Miller and Budweiser, and I could make out an ocean of bobble-headed drunks clogging the length of the establishment, almost all of them pulling on brown and green bottles of beer.
I wiped my glasses with my shirttail and scanned the bar for familiar faces. Seeing none, I wedged my way through the crowd of bobble-headed drunks, cursing them sotto voce for obstructing the path to the pool table at the back of the bar. After squeezing through the last cluster of bobbleheads, I found my friend Johnny Climax near the pool table.
Per normal, Climax looked like he didn’t give a fuck how he looked. No…that isn’t right. He looked like he chose the most comfortable clothing he could find and didn’t care what that ended up looking like (there is a difference). Given the weather conditions, he had opted for baggy brown corduroy pants, a fuzzy gray sweater, and Redwing work boots. His medium length brown hair was allowed to arrange itself however it wanted to. Despite the clothes he looked more rural stoner jock than hipster.
To my surprise, Climax was hanging with two Lakota friends of ours – Joe Bigfire and Gary Funmaker. The surprising part was that Bigfire and Funmaker were slumming in Tea. I don’t think I had ever seen them there before. I immediately deduced that the thunderbolt break belonged to Funmaker.
Funmaker is big and tough looking, with long hair tied back in a ponytail. He doesn’t say much, but he does project a certain level of badassitude. But here is the great thing about Funmaker: He’s also a damn fine lawyer.
That night he was dressed in a corduroy jacket, jeans, a blue shirt, and a bolo tie. That was his uniform in court too. I know this because I’ve seen the man in action – he has defended some of my friends who got jammed up with the police. The thing is, Funmaker has this beautiful way of speaking. Long pauses, a very deep voice, every word he says is perfectly timed. The man is an artist, and when he speaks, it is like the voice of God. It doesn’t matter if the audience is white or young or old; they find the dude spellbinding in court. The local lawyers do not want to go up against him because they know he will hand them their asses.
There is another important thing about Funmaker: He knows the cops and the sketchy fuckers in town and while he usually lets them do their thing, when he says this is how it’s going to be that is just how it will be. He gets mad respect from both the cops and the criminals and all the people that are somewhere in the middle.
Bigfire is another thing altogether. I was two years behind him in high school — back when his name was Joe Brown and his nickname was Speedy. I never asked him why he changed his last name to Bigfire, but I sometimes wondered if it went back to that incident in shop class – the day, somehow, that his pants caught on fire. It was surreal. We all smelled smoke and then he pointed at a full length mirror and said “dude, your pants are on fire!” And then he realized he was the dude with the burning pants.
Would someone change his name to Bigfire because of that? It’s hard to imagine, but Bigfire is a strange bird. He is slender, often depressed, and he seems to be borderline Asperger’s; when he gets rolling with a speech about something or other he just plows ahead like a robot, oblivious to whether anyone is paying attention, or for that matter, whether his cadence is making people glaze over. I noticed he was wearing a gray suit that was shiny, almost sharkskin, with a blue checked shirt underneath. A blue necktie was hanging out of his right coat pocket, suggesting an attitude of “yeah I have a necktie, so fucking what?”
Bigfire works for Funmaker under the job description “Paralegal,” and what that means is that he is more or less a gopher for Funmaker. That is to say that he does some law stuff for Funmaker and also gets involved with Funmaker’s more informal problem-solving projects. Finally, when there is some message Funmaker wants to get across but the articulation of it is beneath him – for example because Funmaker considers it obvious — Bigfire is the messenger.
My friendship with all three of them has developed slowly over the course of a decade, and it seems to be grounded primarily in a lot of sitting around, drinking, smoking weed, and bullshitting. Sometimes those are the best friendships – the ones that are built up brick by brick over the course of many years, with minimal drama.
Bigfire was holding his pool cue vertically, with the base planted on the floor, and he was rocking back and forth staring at a moose head on the wall. I will admit that the moose head was something to puzzle over. One antler had a kitchen strainer on it and the other antler had a string of pearls hanging from it. I decided not to disturb him while he worked out the hidden meaning of this.
Climax was in the middle of an oration about some other bar. I only caught the tail end of it.
“… it’s just that ya gotta deal with the dregs of the prairie in there. The absolute fucking dregs. Hey speaking of dregs, it’s The Judge!”
Sometimes Climax calls me “The Judge” because when I was a kid I was heavily into Judge Dredd comics – this was before the movie ruined everything. But I also wonder if sometimes he calls me “Judge” because he thinks I’m judgy. He is subtle in some ways. Funmaker looked over and mumbled something. He was holding a giant jar of Scherer brand pickled turkey gizzards, and by giant I mean it contained something like a gallon of brine. The gizzards floated aimlessly until Funmaker plunged his big right paw in and fished one out and began gnawing on it. The remaining gizzards scurried about, relieved that they had escaped Funmaker’s grasp, but each remaining gizzard wondering if it was next.
I felt the need to comment. “Dude, not the gizzards again.”
“They are good for you, cuz. Have one, it will put hair on your chest.”
“Dude, I don’t want hair on my chest. And what do those things taste like even.”
“They taste like chicken.”
“You aren’t going to know if you aren’t going to try.”
Maybe Funmaker was right, but I was happy to live in ignorance, so I just shrugged like “fuck-if-I-care”.
Just as Funmaker polished off another gizzard, Athena materialized out of the crowd of bobbleheaded drunks. She was looking particularly Amazonian that night; with her high-heeled boots she was pushing six feet tall. She was wearing a pleasant musky perfume that managed to cut through the spilled beer and gizzard juice ambiance of the Welcome Inn.
Athena was, for some reason, Funmaker’s favorite human being. Seriously, sometimes it was like no one could reach him but Athena. He was deeply protective of her, and I’m sure he would do anything for her. It was, no question, a weird relationship – a badass Indian lawyer and the great-great-granddaughter of O.E. Roelvaag — but whatever. It was their jam. One thing was clear, though: She had his ear.
I welcomed her to the back end of the bar. “Hey Athena, what’s the word?”
“Hey boys, what’s up back here?”
I shrugged – the same shrug as before, but this time the shrug meant “fuck-if-I-know.” I noticed that Athena didn’t have a drink, so I offered to get her one; that seemed like the civilized thing to do, and it gave me an excuse to check in with Kali, the bartender. Athena asked for a Finlandia Cosmo and asked me to get one for her half-sister Eris too. I slipped away from the crew to go get the drinks.
Kali was working the back end of the bar, very near the pool table. Kali wasn’t tall, per se, but she had really good posture and squared up facing you with solidly planted feet so that she seemed tall. She had thick wavy black hair that she kept pulled back, and sometimes, like today, held in place with a Harley Davidson bandana. Her eyes were fallen-angel obsidian black, and she had an aura of biker gypsy about her. She was divorced and probably pushing 30, but her body was tight as fuck. There was absolutely nothing out of place.
Because of the older woman thing, Kali intimidated me, and she hadn’t expressed that much interest in me, but it seemed to me that there was still a chance of us hooking up if my game was good enough. The clock had not run out yet.
“EJ! The usual?”
I nodded and then added the Finlandia cosmos to my order. I asked her what was up.
“Ah same ol’ same ol’, you know.”
“Yeah.” I said “yeah,” but I hate these pointless “same ol’ same ol’” convos, so I decided to try and propel this one to someplace more engaging. When Kali came back with the cosmos and my Cuervo & grapefruit juice I did my best to move the conversation to somewhere else – anywhere else.
“So check this out, those two Indians with Climax? They are lawyers from Sioux Falls.”
“Whaaat? That’s crazy. That’s crazy shit.”
“Yeah… it’s pretty crazy.”
“Lawyers from Sioux Falls…huh…”
“Crazy for sure.”
Yeah, I know, I hadn’t propelled the conversation along at all. Clearly Kali didn’t give a shit and this was just more same ol’ same ol’ to her. I noticed a jar of Madeleine brand pickled eggs on the shelf behind Kali and seized on that to have something else to talk about.
“Yeah speaking of crazy can you give me one of those picked eggs too?”
And there I was, sitting at the bar, between two fat farmers, staring at two cosmos, a Cuervo & grapefruit, and a pickled egg on a white bevnap. A pickled. fucking. egg.
Suddenly the whole bar seemed to go silent. I mean, I know it didn’t actually go silent; it just seemed that way. It was like someone put the music on mute. Except… except this: I could still hear Kali cracking open bottles of Budweiser with that opener she kept in the back pocket of her skintight jeans. I looked at the egg. It was just sitting there, with a halo of picked egg juice growing around it on the bevnap. The fuck.
Kali walked by on her way to the other end of the bar and plopped down a salt shaker in front of me as she sped by saying “want some salt with that sweetie?,” and she managed to time the salt hitting the bar top with her uttering “salt.”
Salt. Why the fuck would I want salt with a pickled egg? It had been floating in salt water for years probably. Was this her way of making conversation? Was she reaching out to me? Did she think I was gross for eating pickled eggs? Fuck, how could she not?
One question now took precedence among all others as my brain went into overdrive and my synapses burst into flames. Do I have to eat the egg?
The music returned to volume. It was now fucking cacophonous in there. People shouting over the sound of Leonard Skynard’s “Freebird” – the unrelentingly pessimistic and repetitive chorus:
And this bird you can not change, oh, oh, oh, oh.
And this bird you can not change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows I can’t change.
I thought I could hear Athena behind me saying “EJ, where are the cosmos!”
It was do-or-die time. I picked up the egg and held it at eye level. I sniffed it. I tested it with my teeth. And then I bit into it.
And the funny thing is that on that first taste I was teleported to a family vacation from when I was eight years old. I remembered something about hot springs in Colorado. The sulfurous smell. Getting car sick on winding mountain roads. Vomiting in a pillowcase. Something about seeing snowcapped mountains for the first time. Then I remembered my mom, liquored up on a mix of Popov vodka and apple juice, yelling at me for puking. Then something about… “EJ!”
As I teleported back to reality Athena was standing next to me shouting in my right ear.
“What is your damage?”
“Ah, right, I was just ….” Then I noticed that in point of fact Athena was on my left side and Eris on my right side. It felt like the room was about to start spinning. It didn’t help that Athena and Eris had a funny habit of talking over each other. I guess if I’m going to be faithful to what they were saying I will need to indicate the crosstalk moments, so I’ll use left corner brackets to indicate the point at which their crosstalk began.
Athena: “Shit EJ is that a pickled [egg?”
Athena: “Leave [that shit here
Me: Well I was [just…
Athena:_______[fucking leave it EJ, it’s nasty
Athena and Erin grabbed their cosmos and headed to a nearby table that had miraculously opened up. I grabbed my drink but first I checked out Kali behind the bar cracking open beers and then sticking the opener into the back pocket of her tight jeans. Jesus fuck what an exquisite ass. And you know I’m convinced she kept the opener back there just to draw attention to it.
I left the rest of the pickled egg sitting on the bar and followed the girls back to the table and sat down, feeling a bit spaced after my family vacation flashback. Then I thought about what Kali was going to think about the egg. Was she going to think, “good, he didn’t eat it!” or was she going to think, “Wow what a waster!” Or would she think “fucker left this disgusting mess for me to clean up!” Probably that. I wondered if I had tipped her enough, so I got up, went back to the bar, grabbed the egg and threw an extra two dollars on the bar just for purposes of goodwill. That, and I was hoping she would remember the tip instead of the egg. I stuck the egg in my coat pocket and wandered back to Athena’s table.
Athena: Jeez EJ, where is your head [at?
Eris:_____________________________ [you feeling ok?
“Ya yah I’m all good.”
Athena: What does that even mean “all good.”
“It means good everything is good.”
Athena: But like good how?
Me: Are you getting existential on me [Athena cuz if…
Athena:_____________________________[No dude you just seem so [out of it
Eris:________________________________________________________[out of it
“I don’t feel out of it.” And I didn’t. But I have learned that when I am out of it or depressed I’m usually the last one to know. So, like, I began to wonder.
“I’m gonna go smoke a cigarette. Either of you want to join me?”
I didn’t want one that badly, I just wanted to stand outside and get some air and figure out if I was out of it or getting depressed or something.
“I’ll have a smoke with you, ” Athena offered.
When we got outside I realized I didn’t have any cigarettes.
me: Hey ‘thena you gotta ciga[rette?
Athena:____________________[sure thing freeloader
Athena lit me with her pink Zippo lighter. In the frozen nighttime quiet of Tea, South Dakota it was easy to hear the zip and ignition of the lighter and even the flame. It sounded like a tiny blowtorch. I leaned towards the lighter and sucked the flame into the end of my cig and thanked Athena with a perfunctory “tnx”. She pocketed the lighter in her down coat.
We stared at the street light for a while. It was fuckall cold, but it didn’t seem that bad, no doubt because my body had adjusted to the Sodak winter. I could feel my head starting to clear.
After a bit of standing around and looking at the sky, Athena broke the silence.
“So I was just thinking about last week when we went to Lou Anne’s and her fucking brother Pauly was there and, per the usual, drunk as fuck in his wifebeater, and you know… you put him down.”
“Yeah, he had to be put down.”
“He was the fucking rudest. Remember he was like: ‘Lou Anne you whore, get your loud ass friends out of my house!’”
“That’s not how you talk to your sister, dude.”
“It was so epic when you punched him in his face and planted him on the coffee table.”
I felt I should keep the story rolling, so I added some color to it. “Seriously ‘thena, I couldn’t stand to look at the fucker with that ugly ass giant zit on his forehead. Get some fucking Clearasil for fuck sake.”
“Seriously. If you walk around on this planet looking and acting like that someone is going to mess you up.”
“Dude, you can bank on that. He was not a quality human being. He was going down sooner or later. It just happened to be sooner.”
Athena spoke with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “He was a rude motherfucking penis.”
“Yeah… wanna go back inside?”
Well actually…there is something else I wanted to talk to you about…”
“Listen, EJ, you’ve been hanging out here all week long trying to get in Kali’s pants. Meanwhile, Penny has been working in the city at the Stockman and you’ve completely avoided her.”
“What’s wrong with Kali?”
“A: She’s a witch. B: What the fuck EJ, Penny is the most beautiful, awesome person around and you really do NOT deserve her, but she’s still in love with you and waiting for you to come see her. You should do it before you leave.”
I mumbled something.
“Plus, EJ, that bar is YOUR hangout. This place is a shit hole. Stop pretending you like it here.”
“Well jeez Athena, it’s good enough for you.”
“Shut up EJ, it’s time for you to man up, get your ass to the Stockman, and face Penny.”
“Doesn’t she have someone else by now?”
“EJ you are a fucking fool. She’s still waiting for you to come back and straighten things out. Don’t push your luck. She won’t wait forever.”
“Yeah I’ll think about it.”
“Sure EJ, think about it, but time is running out. Don’t fuck this up.”
As we stepped back in I told Athena I needed another drink and excused myself to the near end of the bar, which had a rare pair of empty stools. It was the end of the bar where Sonny held court.
Sonny noticed me. “Hey bro’ what can I do ya for?”
God I hate that fucking expression. Is it supposed to be folksy to flip the ‘you’ and the ‘for’? It doesn’t make any sense. But that was Sonny, folksying his way to more tips and a better snowmobile.
I asked for a Leinenkugels, and it was cracked open and sitting in front of me before I even got going with my hating on his folksyness. Folksy or not, Sonny was a good bartender.
Kali glided down the bar to the spot in front of me.
“Want a shot EJ?”
“Naw, the Leinies is good.”
“Sure thing sweetie, you want another egg with that?”
Was she making fun of me for the egg? Then the taste of the egg came back to me, and then the family vacation and the pillowcase barf bag and then I remembered the egg in my pocket. I reached in; it was smashed to bits.
“What’s that sweetie?”
“Uh, nada, nothing, no thanks no eggs, one is enough… for a lifetime.”
I slid off my stool and wove my way back to the pool table, where Climax, Funmaker, Bigfire, and Athena were still in control of the table. I noticed that the jar of pickled turkey gizzards was empty, but for the brine.
“Jesus fuck, Funmaker, did you eat all those gizzards?”
Funmaker shrugged like so what.
“How many did you fucking eat?”
“Bullshit, no one can eat twenty fucking pickled turkey gizzards.”
Bigfire: “No he did [I saw him do it.”
Climax:___________[Them gizzards [didn’t stand a chance.
Me:_____________________________[twenty……. That is some sick shit.
Funmaker then actually seemed amused. “What’s the matter, you never saw Cool Hand Luke? He ate forty!”
“Gary, those were fucking eggs, Cool Hand Luke ate forty eggs not gizzards!”
“Same thing bro.”
“Also, Cool Hand Luke is fictional! He is. Not. Real.”
Climax broke in, “Jeezus EJ calm down. You’re gonna herniate yourself. Forget about the fucking eggs and gizzards already.”
Athena entered the conversation, changing the subject completely.
“Gary, would you please tell EJ to forget about this Kali witch and go see his girl Penny for once. He hasn’t seen her all break!”
Funmaker sighed and looked at Bigfire. That was his way of saying “Bigfire, will you take care of this?” Bigfire laid it out.
“Athena speaks the truth EJ. You and Kali are not going to be a thing. She’s not your type, and honestly, you aren’t hers. You should hang with the people that love you. We all should.” Then he went back to staring at the moose head.
Funmaker was looking at the pool table and he ever so slightly nodded. He could have been approving his choice of next shot, but I was pretty sure he was agreeing with Bigfire.
Then it dawned on me: This was a fucking intervention.
“So you all think this is the right thing to do?”
Everyone nodded again and said “yeah” but Funmaker said “yeah” without a whole lot of enthusiasm and in the moment I had a notion that he was just agreeing with the group just to agree with them. Then the conversation got muddled.
Me: Are you just agreeing because you feel [you wanna uh…
Fumaker:______________________________________[Hm? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?
Me : It’s Agree[ing.
Climax: A[gree’n with us. Just going [along with us.
Climax: Saying ‘yes, yes’ [you know just a lot of yes yes.
Me:_________________________[He knows what ‘agree’ means, fucknut.
Somehow Climax had gotten the idea that Funmaker didn’t know the meaning of ‘agreeing’. Why? Who knows.
Funmaker waved his raised hand across our faces, which I took to mean the stupid conversation was now over. He then took that moment to offer some unsolicited advice on yet another topic. I had a slowly dawning suspicion that Funmaker was just now getting to the reason for his slumming at the Welcome Inn. He had something important to tell me, and it had nothing to do with the earlier intervention, which clearly, he didn’t give a fuck about. Or to put it another way, he was just agreeing.
“Listen cuz, that highway dick, Kripke, has been looking for you. I told him to leave you alone, but you have to be careful with that guy. Why the hell did you need to beat up his kid?”
Athena came to my defense “Gary, Officer Kripke’s kid was a fucking menace. He was abusing Lou Anne and was a terrible fucking host too.”
That pretty much nailed it for me, but I felt compelled to add something, so I chimed in with “yah dude is a menace.”
Funmaker couldn’t give a fuck. “That is not the point. His dad is a highway dick and I have to burn capital to keep him off your asses.”
I tried to downplay my role in the whole affair. “The thing is, Gary, I just pushed him back and he sort of tripped and fell hard. It was a total accident.”
Bigfire waved his hand again as if to signal something along the lines of “stop with the bullshit already.” He didn’t want to hear fuckall about details. Then he gave me a lecture about violence.
“Did you have to escalate the situation? Was it too much trouble to just pick up Lou Anne and leave? You put everyone at risk by letting shit get violent. I don’t care if Pauly beats your ass, but he could just as easily hurt Lou Anne and Athena. And now you get to run away to New York and we are left to deal with the mess.”
Athena issued an apology on behalf of both of us. “Sorry Gary, we weren’t looking for trouble. We appreciate that you are trying to fix things for us.”
Funmaker was like “damn straight you are going to appreciate this because it is not easy to get a cop to leave you alone. It costs me, cuz, and I don’t like owing favors to cops. Or anyone else.”
At that point I felt that contrition was the only way out, so I just said, “so sorry Gary, I really appreciate your going to bat for us. I really do.”
Funmaker mumbled something, and I guess that meant the awkward conversation was over. I also figured that since I had groveled for him and had agreed to give up on Kali, it would be cool for me to ask everyone for some support.
“Listen, dudes, you all want to come with me to the Stockman?”
Bigfire and Funmaker were looking at me like “you little chickenshit,” but Athena jumped on my request immediately.
“Of course we will EJ, right boys? We got your back!” And when she said this she batted her eyes at Funmaker and tilted her head from side to side sending her platinum white hair dancing.
Funmaker sighed. He had been defeated by Athena’s coquettishness. He mumbled something which I took to mean “yeah sure, alright, if we have to,” and that must have been how the others took it too, because they nodded and said various things like “sure” and “you bet,” but with noticeably flat intonations.
I suppressed a grin. I had my posse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
EJ Spode speaks truth to power. 3:AM are serialising his novel weekly. Keep up.
Image: Jana Astanov
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 6th, 2016.