Have you ever been in a place so comfortable that you wanted to leave? That was the party out at the Bilbo place to me, lit by a small bonfire with dancing shadows of everyone I had known. Familiar faces, ghosts that I had insulated myself against for so long in the small shell of the library were popping up everywhere. Small conversations happened all around me and I sat back and listened.
Like Jessie telling a few of the bar locals about our recent problem with kids.
“And that kid just tore the book up right in front of him and Evan is like, ‘What the fuck are you kids doing, you little shits, I’ll shove those books up your asses’ and I’m like, ‘Evan, chill, just calm down. Nobody’s gonna have books in asses.’
“Then what happened?”
“Oh, two of the kids beat it, took off. Evan went down to get some carts and I talked some sense into two of the kids. They even helped us put up the books. Evan even got the cops to go lenient on them, community service a the library. I’m thinking about being their mentor. Like a big brother and shit.”
“If you were my big brother, I’d rather have jail. Say, you don’t think them Tanners are gonna try to come out here again, do you?”
And so on. Jessie likes to talk, and I left him to it.
Later, I found myself in a discussion with Peanut and his girlfriend, Walnut.. She probably has a real name, but that’s what Peanut’s mama calls her so for now we’ll leave her at that.
“You know I don’t like it when you drink this much, you ass,” Walnut said.
Peanut took a sip of his beer, “Look, nothing to it. I tell you what to do, no t’other way round. Sides, you can’t tell somebody something when you got something just as worse.”
I looked down at Walnut’s hand and saw a cigarette burning. I looked down at my own cigarette.
“He’s kinda got a point,” I said.
“Like hell he does,” she said, “I mean, who the hell ever crashed a car while smoking.”
“I did,” Peanut said.
“You were drunk and dropped the butt in your lap. That don’t count.”
I picked up a napkin, “Look, cigarettes are really bad for you. I can prove it.”
I took a drag off my own cigarette and blew through the napkin. A dark brown ring formed where the smoke passed through.
“This is what is happening to our lungs every time we take a drag,” I said, dropping the napkin and the cigarette in the trash. Walnut looked down at her cigarette with a curled mouth.
Peanut took the opportunity and picked up his own napkin. He filled his mouth with beer, turned away from us, and sprayed it into the white paper.
Turning back with a triumphant grin, he held up the napkin.
“See, ain’t shit on my napkin. Clear as day.”
I fell over laughing at that, but I do not think Walnut appreciated the gesture.
When I recovered, so had they, moving to a more secluded part of the party. I watched them go and thought of all the secluded nights I had had out in the woods throughout the years. Just me, a blanket of stars and a pretty girl. Most times I was too chicken to do anything, but there were times. There were times.
As soon as I started my mind wandering in that direction, Cassidy came into view as if I had willed her.
She wore her red hair up high in a messy bun, tendrils falling to frame her face in delicate curls. She stood by the bonfire alone, the light making her glow with an unearthly blend of dark and light dancing across her features.
I finished my beer and took a deep breath for courage. I got three steps when the Mayor cut me off.
“Mr. Banned. We have not had a chance to talk. How are you this evening?”
“Doing okay, Billy. And it’s just Evan. Mom sends her regards, sad she couldn’t make it.”
“Well, I know how she feels about... Well, tell her thank you.”
I took the moment of silent awkwardness as a chance to look Mayor William Bilbo over. He was everything I remembered from the times before I met him hanging out with Mark when we were younger, but more. More age, more lines, more culture and... Well, the Southern term I guess would be “reckoning.” His accounts were balanced and he seemed in his place no matter where he was. Purpose was difficult thing to find in this family, but the Billy had it in spades, always had.
“So can I count on your vote next month?” he asked me, handing me a fresh beer and taking my empty can.
“Now, you know I’m not much for politics,” I said, looking over to make sure Cassidy was still in place and alone.
“Oh, I know,” he said, “You’ve always been on the fringe and with only the Judge running against me, well, you know. I have to ask.”
“Sure, sure...” I said, “Well, thank you for taking a minute. I’ll let you get back to campaigning.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. He had about ten years on me and we both had been in desk jobs at least half our lives, but his grip proved that he still had a ton of strength left in me.
“Wait,” he said, “Look, we also need to talk about something else. It’s about Betty.”
He had my attention.
“What about Betty?” I asked.
“Billy! Billy, Billy, Billy! Help me out, here.”
A young man, one of the Bilbo cousins named Josh, appeared at the Mayor’s shoulder.
“Not now Josh,” Billy said, “Mr. Banned and I are talking.”
“Just take a minute, just a minute. You mind taking this off my hands? Only $50.”
Josh thrust his hand between us. In it was an automatic pistol, nickle plated and gleaming in the firelight.
“What the? Son, are you fucking high?” Billy said, “What the hell are you on? No, I am the damn mayor.”
“But... It was yer daddy’s. Jefferson Ray’s. He gave it to me,” Josh said, “Come on, just $50. I could use the money and it was yer daddy’s.”
The young man twitched and shook, each period of his sentences accented by a shake of the pistol. His drawl was thick, each “daddy” rhyming with “ready,” but slurred as if he had just woken up and drank ten cups of coffee in the space of a blink.
“No,” Billy said.
“But it shoots real good. It was yer daddy’s.”
“Josh, go home. Now. Tim,” the Mayor called over another cousin, “Tim, make sure Josh gets to his car and gets the hell out of here.”
We watched as Tim lead Josh away with Josh trying to bargain with him the entire way. Josh was family, so his car was just at the edge of the clearing. The lights of the car came on and the engine roared. For a moment the woods were illuminated and everyone was blind.
“Stupid sumbitch,” Billy said under his breath.
Suddenly shots rang out in the night. Pop. Pop. Pop. Josh was firing the gun from the window of the car and from the angle of the muzzle flash he was firing straight up in the air.
The party went into panic as everyone either fell to the ground or ran for cover. Billy and I, knowing what was happening, stood our ground and tried to calm everyone down.
“It’s just Josh and that damn pistol,” Billy said, but no one was listening.
“It’s the goddamn Tanners!” said a voice in the crowd.
Instantly I heard a half a dozen pistols being cocked and hammers being pulled back on shotguns. Then I hit the dirt.
The mayor flung himself down next to me as shots rang out around us. I heard Josh scream in the distance as his tires kicked dirt and rocks behind him. I chanced a look and saw one of the red lights on the back of his car shatter as he raced off into the night.
The gunfire ended the party. People scattered to their cars. I climbed to my feet and looked to where Cassidy had been standing by the bonfire. She was gone.
Natalie and Edward were nowhere to be seen as well, but Jessie was standing at the edge of the woods peeing on a tree.
“Well, hell. Never a boring night out at the Bilbo place,” I said.
Billy laughed and clapped a hand on my back. I looked at the mayor and he was shaking his head.
I nodded and walked over to the nearest abandoned cooler. A dozen or so beers still sat in the ice water. I pulled out two and handed one to Billy.
“More beer for us, I guess,” he said.
“Damn straight. Daddy always did like you,” he said, “Here’s to rolling with the punches. May the saddest day of your future be equal to the happiest of your past.”
“To Mark and Jefferson Ray.”
We tipped our beers back and both took long drinks. After, we sat and he played guitar with his family and I sat and watched. I laughed as Peanut crowed like his father had during a rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues,” an old joke punctuated by decades of familial repetition. I felt the teenager in me that had been out here on these dangerous nights, these music filled nights of misunderstandings and hope and darkness and worry and laughter. I felt young, a time traveler reaching back to simpler times. I felt happy.
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