The sun shines hard on Bentonville, Missouri. Harder than any of the twenty or so August suns Charlie and Tommy Phelps can remember sitting under since they hung up their scissors to play checkers outside their brother Bill's barber shop.
98 degrees. Heat index of 106. "Head up to 115 by noon," squawks the radio as Big Jim stomps past without so much as a smile.
Big Jim doesn't close the door; he figures he's nice enough to open what's in the way instead of going through it. If other folks want it closed, they got legs.
"Look like rain today?" Bill strops a razor, before waving it at a chair in the shade.
Instead, Big Jim plops into the chair nearest the picture window, closes his eyes and soaks up sun.
"Looks like yesterday and damn near every day before that.”
Bill measures Big Jim's ears with the shears, "What's the jackpot at tonight?"
"34 million. You get yours?"
Bill hands over a crumpled ten. "Dime. Quick picks."
"You're doing it wrong. You gotta have a system," Big Jim snorts.
"Come back and teach me when YOUR six hit, okay?"
"Your money. Me, I figure the sun's shining on me. Take a little off the top, keep it out of my eyes."
Bill starts to laugh, since Big Jim doesn't have enough hair to get in most folks’ eyes. But, most folks have more than a half inch of forehead.
"Sun's BEEN shining," Bill recovers before going to work with the scissors, the sun bouncing off slashing, slapping blades.
This is how the sun shines down. Down on dying trees. Down on floury dirt and cowlicks of broken, coffee-stained weeds peeking over cobbled sidewalks. Beating down on the chapped rooftops of a town someone passing through might mistake for suffering a shingle epidemic. But, there's plenty of shingles, and plenty of men on roofs with hammers in hands, nails in their teeth and creeks of perspiration trickling down the cracks of their asses, all cursing the sun shining.
Big Jim exits the barbershop, the sun baking his newly shaved head, the soft spot splitting the top into chapped halves.
Tommy looks up from the checkerboard and can't hold back the laugh. "Got any cashews, Charlie?"
"Nah, let's go to the bar and get some peanuts. You still afford peanuts, Jim?"
Big Jim stops.
"It was a joke, Jim," Tommy defends his brother.
"I thought it was pretty funny, too, boy," Charlie pipes up. "We cut that head since you grew hair on it. Did a better job, too."
"Ought to be comedians," Big Jim laughs, then flips the checkerboard and its contents down the street.
Big Jim may not have manners or tact, or sense of humor, but what he does have is a daughter with an ass as sweet as pecan pie and a crooked smile that’s wrapped around the only four inches of Rusty K. Chambers that matter anything in the world to him at this moment.
"You sure your daddy's gonna be down at the bar?"
"He's owns the place. If you want on his good side, drop a fifty to him at the poker table."
"If I had a fifty, I wouldn't be asking for a gig," he plops down, strumming. "All I need is a couple shows, and I can afford the ticket to Nashville. If I get there, money's waiting for me," he pauses and smiles. "For us."
Big Jim arrives before noon for a change.
"You're about to cause an accident," he unzips his fly and walks to the bathroom, Chuck, the bartender, in tow.
Big Jim stands at the urinal and looks over his shoulder as water gushes like a fountain. Like a garden hose more precisely. "You want to aim it?"
At six four and two-thirty, anybody might figure it was obvious how Big Jim got his name. But Big Jim got his name long before he was tall and heavy. He got it when he was 12 and Bernice, the seamstress at Uncle Dudley's clothing outlet, measured his waist at 30 inches, but couldn't get a pair of 32 Levis to zip over his inseam.
"Well?" Big Jim shakes it off, and rolls it into his Fruit of the Looms.
"Larry at First National called."
"Tell him to come have a drink on the house," Bill strides towards a table filled with cards and money.
"He says to call him back, says he's serious."
"I got serious business here, too. How's the game?"
"Down 150," Phil says into a glass of Jim Beam.
"Up 150," Sammy waves a wad of cash.
Big Jim snatches the greenbacks. "Guess you can afford to pay that tab."
"Aww, come on. Gimme some breathing room."
"Get your brother at the bank to give me some breathing room," Big Jim tosses the wad back.
"How far you behind,” Sammy asks.
"Everybody's behind enough, come on. Win a little of the state's money," he unfurls an unemployment check.
"Talk to him and deal me in," Big Jim sits. "And get down to the bank before they close to cash that son of a bitch and pay up, like everybody else at this table's gonna do tonight. You think I'm in the business of giving away drinks?"
"Well, you do look mighty nice in an apron," Phil giggles.
"That's it! You're cut off! Get out!"
"But Jim," Phil stammers, as Jim grabs his collar and runs him out the front door.
"And don't come back 'til you got- How much does he owe, Chuck?"
"Ninety dollars and a tip!"
Phil puffs his chest out.
"Think about it, then think better of it, little man," Big Jim stares from a half a foot above.
Phil's clicks his teeth, and does just that. Thinks better of it.
He walks backwards, click clacking on his heels a safe distance before yelling, "Used to be folks trusted one another around here!"
"Used to be folks paid their bills," Big Jim slams the door.
"Excuse me, sir."
"WHAT?" Big Jim spins to see Rusty with his guitar slung over his shoulder, sweat shooting through a Shit Happens T-shirt.
"I heard you need somebody to play the guitar some nights."
Rusty strums a final chord, looks straight at the ground, drops the guitar to its strap and shoves sweaty bangs out of his eyes.
"So, you got a guitar, and you can play it," Big Jim smiles. "You got a name?"
Rusty flicks the pick between his thumb and forefinger, cradling the six-string. "Rusty. Rusty Chambers," he clutches the frets like a club.
"Jake's boy? He sick?" Jim points at a stool. "Looks like his desk's missing him."
"Ain't my day to watch him."
"Fair enough. You got plans tonight?"
"Hope to make some."
"You of age to play in a drinking establishment?"
"Sure," Rusty's hands betray his bluff as he holds his license out, thumb over the date of birth.
Big Jim yanks the license away. “You can't snow a snowman, son. Come back in a couple years, Mr. Rusty K-" Jim takes a closer look at the license, cackling. "Jesus, you do got a reason to sing the blues, boy!"
Jake put his penchant for smartass comments and baseball trivia to use the night his wife went into labor with the sole product of a marriage based on fucking, drinking and smoking pot. The latter of which Rusty's mom figured was labeled bad out of government conspiracy, so she didn't bother giving it up for pregnancy. When Jake passed the pipe, she took a hit big enough to lift a blimp, then coughed. And coughed. Until her water broke.
Mrs. Chambers got an epidural, and Doctor Ziske witnessed the simplest birth in Dent County Memorial history when a bouncing baby boy dropped into the world with a squall, and without a strike against him.
For the only three lucky minutes of his life.
The nurse held the screaming, pissing being far from her body, requesting a name. Jake had been wearing out the eight track with Johnny Cash and biting the brown neck of a forty-ouncer all the way to the hospital, and “A Boy Named Sue” struck him as an epiphany in the way a father could make his son a man right off the bat.
Thus, Rusty Kuntz Chambers came into the world, named after a Chicago White Sox outfielder whose debilitating name of Rusty Kuntz couldn't keep him from a mediocre big-league career.
Every year, Rusty’s teachers would read the attendance book the first day of class, chortle, then see a lonely boy staring at the ground. About a week later, when Rusty showed his inherent stupidity, it would hit them that there was order in the universe to keep folks in their place.
"I can't go nowhere around here without that name following me!" Rusty grabs a bottle of perfume from the dresser and heaves it at the wall.
It bounces right back between his eyes, knocking him flat on his ass.
When the stars subside, he sees Nancy holding her sides. "Are you through?"
He tackles her to the bed. "You want to cheer me up—Ow!" He reaches behind her and retrieves a small, empty cardboard box and freezes.
She stammers while Rusty soaks in the box. "ClearBlue Easy. If it's blue, it's just that easy!"
"Ten quickpicks and ten pick 'ems," Big Jim shoves a twenty across the counter.
"Bill still not buying the system?"
"I told him, it’s math.” Big Jim pockets the wad of tickets.
"I like math. Especially addition.” Larry says from behind his First National Bank nametag proudly pinned to the chest of his sports coat. Larry's a big man, too, almost as big as Jim, tragically tanned in the tanning bed of his basement, and chiseled from weights and treadmills. "Maybe you can help me add a little to your account."
"Monday. It's the first of the month. It's when people cash their state checks. You know that."
"It was due yesterday. Friday. Last month's was due on a Thursday. The 29th day of the month. Every month, James. Do you need a refrigerator magnet to remind you?" Larry keeps up, proud to have the upper hand on Big Jim in front of a crowd.
Big Jim slides past, shaking his head.
"That's right, Jim, hide at your little clubhouse where the losers love you."
“Go back to the bank," he flicks the nametag on Larry's chest. "Where all the tightasses are scared of your daddy's last name."
They stare into one another's eyes.
"I'll be down for a drink in a couple hours. On the house. Hope you have a good enough night to at least get behind on your payments."
As Big Jim walks away, thunder shakes the foundation of the building. He looks at the black sky and can't help but think that the sun is definitely not shining on him.
Rusty sits on the bed, holding his head between his knees, the same place it's been for an hour. "We have to get rid of it."
"How? You can't keep a secret in this town! You were supposed to get those tickets to Nashville!"
Rusty notices a black cap gun with a bright orange tip and X across the barrel.
"Your dad do okay on Saturday nights?"
"Yeah, it's the first of the month. Everybody settles their tabs."
"Maybe he'd let me bus tables. If he sees me work hard, maybe we could start something here." Rusty stares at the gun’s orange tip. "You got any shoe polish? I want to make an impression.”
Tiny clouds of dust explode as corpulent raindrops strike chalky ground.
Rusty sneaks out the back, just as Big Jim walks in the front.
Nancy surveys for remnants of Rusty K. Chambers. "What are you doing home this time of the evening?”
Big Jim rummages through the fridge. "Ain’t we got anything to eat around this place?"
"I was gonna go to the store in the morning."
He stuffs a ten into her hand. "Order something that delivers. Looks like it ain't gonna be much of a night to go out," he wipes rain from his forehead and tromps to the bathroom.
"Daddy, I got a favor to ask. This friend, he's stopping by for a job."
"I told you, they gotta be 21," Big Jim flushes and looks for a towel.
"Well, it's sort of a special case," she croons from the other side of the door. "He's a hard worker, and, he's sort of my boyfriend. And, he plays the guitar…"
"That's funny, we had somebody down today trying to get me to let him play at the bar."
Big Jim sees the plastic applicator atop the trash. It’s ClearBlue, easy enough.
"Tell him to come down and we’ll have a talk."
Rusty admires himself in the bedroom mirror. "Do you feel lucky, punk?"
He grits his teeth, cocking the cap gun, the orange tip blacked out.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid kids!" Big Jim wipes rain from his face. “Double bourbon."
Chuck pours, worried. Big Jim sticks to beer.
"Make that, two," Larry sits next to Big Jim, still wearing the nametag, plopping a wad of cash onto the bar and yanking a thumb at the poker table. "Amateurs."
Big Jim stares at the nametag. "Funny how a name can buy the world."
"Oh, shit, I forget it's even on," Larry starts to unpin it, but Big Jim straightens it.
"Keep it on, remind the world of who you are."
"Don’t guess I need a nametag for that. So, James, you got it?"
Big Jim stares at the television, the moment he waits for every Saturday, and pulls the tickets from his wallet. A newscaster stands next to a box of bouncing, numbered ping-pong balls. "And, the first number, a SIX!"
"This is it, James, the end. You're two months behind."
"And the second, a twenty-two!" Big Jim knows two hits are good enough for a dime if the superball hits.
" Monday. Everybody comes in from out of town on the weekends to float the river, and it's the first of the month." Big Jim looks over Larry's shoulder at the television.
"Thirty-seven," Big Jim grips his ticket.
"Doesn't look like you're getting much float money with this rain."
"Twenty-five," Big Jim gulps.
"I'm going to be glad to see this eyesore tore down.”
Big Jim sees a fifteen roll up and almost faints… Five for five makes 50 grand. He prays, "Forty-two…Forty-two…"
"LOOK AT ME WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU!" Larry grabs Big Jim by the collars and brings him eye to eye, just as-
"FORTY-TWO! GOOD LUCK, FOLKS!"
Big Jim grips his ticket and headbutts Larry square in the face.
"I'll buy your daddy's bank, shithead.” The world stops, as Big Jim tucks the ticket into his wallet and shoves it in his back pocket.
"You see that door! My door! Walk out it, or go through the wall beside it."
Larry lays his coat across the bar. "Not a good choice, James," he flexes his chest. "It's time somebody put you in your place.”
And, gets a fist right on the nose, and another across the jaw, crumpling.
Big Jim grabs him by the pants. "Your choice."
Big Jim bangs his head on the frame on the way into the rain and the mud.
He sees Jake sitting at the end of the bar and, to the amazement of the crowd, hugs him. "Jake, tell your boy he can play here any night. A bar's gotta have music!"
"He just told me he was leaving on the redeye bus to Nashville, Jim."
"Well, find him. I’m gonna buy a pack of smokes and wanna hear a song.”
Rusty squats under the awning of the Soap and Suds across the street, reciting the speech he's been trying to make himself believe for the past two hours. "I just have to shove it in the bartender's face before he can get the gun under the counter. I'll get that, shoot in the air, and be out of town in an hour."
He sucks in a breath and a half-gallon of rain, then pulls the ski mask over his face and sprints across the street, guitar case spanking his ass with every stride.
Big Jim runs out into the rain and trips over him, dropping his wallet into a puddle.
"Freeze!" Rusty shoves the cap gun between Big Jim's eyes.
"You don't have any idea who you're fucking with," Big Jim starts to stand. Rusty slams the gun butt across Big Jim’s forehead.
Rusty's backs off, giving himself some room. "Let’s march inside and get the till and nobody has to get hurt."
Big Jim sees at the Shit Happens T-Shirt and the guitar case, "Rusty Kuntz! My daughter!"
"Back off, or I'll blow both your balls off and shoot your pecker twice in between!"
Big Jim starts to back off, then notices black, inky drops dripping from his forehead onto the back of his hand. And black shoe polish dripping from the orange X across the barrel of the pistol.
"That's a cap gun!"
Big Jim grabs a rock, heaves it.
WHUNK! Right off Rusty's hip.
Big Jim grabs another rock, furious, and lets fly.
"Stop it! STOP IT! I'll shoot! OW!"
Big Jim rains missiles onto Rusty's twisting and retreating body. In furious desperation, Big Jim grabs the wallet from the puddle and lets it fly.
Arcing through the air.
Right over Rusty's shoulders into his hands, like Joe Montana to Jerry Rice.
Rusty looks at the wallet, back at Big Jim, and sprints the other direction.
Big Jim shoves through the bar crowd, going straight for the sawed off under the register, picking up a handful of shells.
"One ticket to Nashville," Rusty pushes forty-nine dollars across the counter.
A hundred and fifty-nine bucks and twenty dollars in lotto slips; that's all Rusty found in the wallet.
"Bus leaves in twenty-five minutes," the attendant says, spitting out a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Rusty slides a 20 across the counter. "Anybody asks if I was here, whatta you gonna say?"
"That you handed me a lousy twenty dollar bill and asked a stupid question."
Rusty sighs and pushes another 20 across.
"Another twenty, and I ain't never in my life heard the name Rusty K.-"
"CHAMBERS!" Big Jim crashes through the door, dripping sweat and rain.
Rusty takes off, struggling against the guitar case, clenching Big Jim's wallet.
"Let's go," Rusty shoves the pistol through the half-open doorway of the bus.
"We don't need any trouble, son," the bus driver says, "let me open this door the rest of the way and we’ll go anyplace you like…."
As Rusty relaxes, the bus driver YANKS, the folding door, slamming shut on Rusty's forearm, and sets the bus in motion.
"Rusty," Big Jim shouts. "Just give me the wallet!"
Rusty runs to keep up, as the bus edges towards a Trans AM.
"I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, boy," the driver swerves.
The bus door shatters above Rusty’s head. He yanks loose and flips over the Trans Am, landing on his feet and zigzagging between cars.
The windshield beside him explodes.
Rusty skids across the slick lot, keeping his head low in the shadows and sees his only option. The river, swollen and pregnant, a solitary John boat rolling against the swells.
Rusty counts the remaining cash in the wallet. Fifty bucks. Enough for another ticket in the next town and a buck left over. He surveys the space between him and the boat. The length of a football field, and just as flat and coverless.
He digs his heels into the mud and sprints, guitar case knocking against his heels, as lightning splits the sky.
"I can see you! And I know about my daughter!"
Rusty's blows snot with each breath as he wades towards the boat.
"Give me that wallet, and we'll talk," Big Jim gains ground as Rusty fights the current.
Shotgun pellets bounce off his guitar case, Big Jim just out of range. He clambers into the boat and struggles to untie the swollen anchor rope.
Closer now, pellets break the case, his guitar falling into the boat.
"Rusty, you can work for me," Big Jim claps the breech shut. "Give me the wallet!"
The rope gives, and the boat shoots out into the river, Rusty laying in the bottom and shielding himself with his guitar.
Big Jim sprints along the bank above for ten yards, then LEAPS!
The tiny boat strains under Big Jim’s weight as he lands on a cushioned seat, water sloshing into the aft, the fore turning sideways, then righting itself.
Rusty stares up the barrel of the twelve gauge.
Rusty holds it up, his eyes closed as he hides behind the neck of the six string.
"Just don't kill me. I love her."
Big Jims snatches for the wallet, as the John boat skips across the surface of the bloated river at impossible speed.
Big Jim checks for the ticket, closes his eyes, hugging the wallet and cackling. "You believe in second chances, boy? 'Cus-"
Rusty grips the guitar by the neck and swings like his moniker, the body splintering across Big Jim’s head.
Big Jim waves his arms, trying to keep his balance, but his feet fly into the air and his head hits the water first. He grabs the side of the boat, tries to heave himself out of the icy world below.
And, thus, Rusty and Jim are eaten by the mighty current.
Hail the size of peanuts pepper the world. Then, golf balls and baseballs. Thunder shakes foundations and lightning splits trees.
This is how it rained and how the wind blew, stripping roofs from houses, hail denting cars like ball peen hammers and thunder shattering the windows of Bill's Barber Shop.
And, then it was calm.
Harold Butts peeks out the flap of the tent he'd parked under a grove of oak trees, happy to have weathered another night without a home.
Harold was once the history teacher at Bentonville Junior High, happy to be known as Hal. Until a student stole a roll book and saw the driver's license clipped to it.
A teacher named Harry Butts didn’t demand much respect from fourteen year olds. When cuts were made, Harry was the first to go. The second to go was his wife.
Harry spent the past six weeks near the river, sleeping in a tent stolen from his grandfather's attic, hoping the sun would shine on him again.
"What a turd floater," he dips his face into the water and sees a brown rectangle stuck to the bank.
Harold pockets fifty bucks, then notices the lotto tickets. "Might be my lucky day," Harold rubs the tickets and tosses the wallet far into the stream.