I was fidgeting with my beer—passing it from one hand to the other and back again, the little I’d spilled giving it just enough slide across the bar to feel satisfying—when Walt walked in.
“This place is dead anyway!”
I turned around and he wrapped me in his arms, told me how great it was to see me, having folded the room in half to collapse the space between us. Later, I’d wonder if he’d known it was me or if that was always how he entered bars. Both seemed surprising, neither hard to believe. Was Walt recognizing me from behind—someone he hadn’t seen in over a decade, in a city I hadn’t visited for just as long—any more unbelievable than me immediately placing that voice as his? Any more impossible than that I had, at that very moment, been thinking about the trouble we’d gotten into over the years, and him appearing through the door, my genie in a pint glass?
“What are you doing here?” He let go and took a step or two back, taking me in.
“Here or here?” Not what I’d meant but what came out. But he didn’t care if I’d meant here in the bar, here back in his state, or some other kind of here, flew right past any context lost between thought and asking out loud.
“You haven’t aged a day!” I didn’t think that was true, but appreciated the sentiment. Maybe by comparison. Walt looked like he had aged many days.
“Fuck it, doesn’t matter. Let’s get out of here. I know what you need.”
And like that, we were on our way out the door, off to whatever Walt thought I needed. I should have been more surprised how ready I was to give myself over to him.
Walt veered off toward the neighborhoods instead of the ped mall and more bars. I followed a step or two behind, trying to think of a question that might bridge all the lives we’d lived since we’d last seen each other. But how do you tether a question to a blur?
“How much money do you have?” Walt asked, no trouble asking questions out of nowhere, skipping over years, lives, sequiturs.
“Yeah, yeah. What do you think, I’m curious about your savings? Your 401k, your income? That would be weird.”
“I don’t think any,” I said.
“Good, good. OK. Good.”
I patted my pockets like I was searching for my wallet, a weird habit like how I looked at my wrist whenever asked the time, even though I hadn’t worn a watch since my girlfriend’s mom got me one in college that I kept wearing after we broke up but then stopped when I started dating someone new. I pulled my wallet out of my front left pocket, where I always kept it.
“Actually, a twenty,” I corrected, thumbing the bill I’d forgotten I’d taken out of an ATM a few days ago just in case. “But I don’t have my card on me.” I stared at my wallet the way you stare at something to prove a point that doesn’t need proving. “I must have left it at the bar.”
“Perfect,” Walt said. “Even better.”
“Should we go back real quick? We aren’t that far.” I looked back toward where I’d come from. I was doing a lot of that.
“Sharks keep moving!” It was something we’d said when drinking our way around this town all those years before. Our mantra to never hang out in one place for too long. At some point it came to also mean never revisiting a place we’d already been to that night. To not just keep moving, but to keep moving forward.
“I mean . . . I gotta go back at some point,” I said. “I need to close out.”
“I know, I know. We’ll get your card.” He stopped talking for a moment, stood upright and looked at me seriously. Looking me in the eye, he held his arm up, three fingers held together, thumb tucked over the tip of his pinkie into his palm. “Scouts honor!” Walt had never been a scout, Boy or Cub, but I had. Walt had always loved that about me.
After college one of my roommates joined the Air Force and another married his high school sweetheart and another got a job at his parents’ printing company and another moved away for grad school. Each of those made less sense to me than the last—I couldn’t see myself in the military, I didn’t have a sweetheart, my parents didn’t have a family business, and signing up for more school, now that we were finally at the end of what I assumed everyone else had thought was as dumb as I had, made as much sense as volunteering for the military. I got a job in town bartending, pouring beers for kids I’d been in classes with the year before, until I got bored and moved a state away and found a job in a diner until I got bored there and did that again in what became a pattern, hopscotching my way across and around the country one cook or bartender or dishwasher job at a time, like I was trying on clothes in a changing room, seeing how they felt, finding what looked good on me. It wasn’t glamorous but it paid the bills and got me laid and the jobs didn’t take it personal when I decided my time in that city had come to its end and it was time to move on and I didn’t show up one day.
Here I was now, twenty years later, not retracing my steps, per se. Revisiting, maybe? Driving around the country, connecting the dots of my previous lives. Some part of me hoping to see the bigger picture once I got it all drawn in.
There were a handful of bars in town, but this one had always been my favorite. Some of the others were famous, or at least that was how some people talked about them. This wasn’t any of those. Which is to say: I’d come to this bar for what it wasn’t. Then I’d walked in and the place was empty, just the bartender and one girl, probably a college student, sitting at the bar.
I ordered a beer and the bartender put it down in front of me and I tried to slide it across the bar to myself but it spilled more than it slid. The bartender went and started talking to the girl. I couldn’t tell if they if they knew each other. It sounded like it, but I wasn’t sure. Maybe she was a regular, maybe they were friends outside of the bar, maybe young people just talked with that kind of ease and familiarity. I overheard pieces of questions about recent concerts in town, what were they doing this weekend, this summer.
I’d forgotten it was summer.
That weird part of year where it is academically summer but everyone else just called it spring. I’d forgotten, too, the way a small Midwest college town can empty itself between graduation and orientation. Turning itself inside out, becoming a different city entirely.
I drank my beer and felt myself growing talkative. That was what beer did to me. I knew I wasn’t going to initiate conversation, but more and more I wanted them to do so.
I wanted them to ask me about my weekend. What I was doing for the summer.
I wanted them to ask how I was doing. At the moment, in general, in life.
I wanted to tell them about all the time I’d spent in this bar when I was their age. I wanted them to know I’d done every kind of shot to order in this bar, I’d drank beers and smoked cigarettes with the bartenders behind the bar hours after last call, I’d made out with two girls at the same time in the guy’s restroom and a guy in the girl’s, I’d done lines or key bumps, I couldn’t remember which or in which bathroom, with the guy who started the local music festival, I wanted to ask them if that still happened every year, even though I knew it did, then ask them if they’d ever been. I wanted to tell them about all the times I’d hung out in the bar’s green room, which was really just the bar manager’s office. I wanted to ask the bartender if they still used that as a green room. I wanted to tell them about all the famous people with whom I’d had dumb small talk conversations or shotgunned beers or shared a joint in that green-room-slash-office. I’d been here on a Friday night when the bar was packed and me and Walt loaded up the jukebox with nothing but Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” as many plays as the stray singles we had in our pockets bought us, and watched and laughed while the everyone in the bar, one by one at first, and then in groups, realized that, yes, it’s a long song, but it isn’t that long, not that repetitive, collectively getting angrier and more annoyed at what was happening.
I wanted to tell them all about my summer. How I’d gotten divorced and packed up everything I needed that could fit in my car and sold away or forfeited to my ex most of the rest of my life and now was just driving around the country, visiting friends and old haunts, revisiting all those old spots from my youth and the general nomadism of my twenties. I wanted them to admire me for this. To be a little jealous of my summer, if not my life. I wanted them to tell me they’d never driven across the country but had always wanted to. I wanted them to say, oh, I’m sorry to hear that, about my divorce and I wanted to hear in their voices that they didn’t really mean it so much as they thought that’s what they were supposed to say because, I had found that the more script-like someone’s concern, the more honest my reply, the more my no, it’s for the best, we’re both happier, sounded conversational rather than forced, more honest than defensive like I was lying to make them not feel bad.
I wanted to ask them what I should do for the night, I wanted them to have good ideas for me, I wanted them to invite me along to whatever they were doing later on, and I wanted that to be not be weird. I wanted them to know I was ready for a little trouble—not too much; a medium amount, at most. I wanted them to intuit just what amount of trouble was the right amount for me to get into.
They looked over at me and I raised my glass in a kind of cheers and made a face, trying to make myself friendly or relatable, but they had already gone back to themselves—her staring at her phone, him checking the levels in all the liquor bottles, sometimes swapping one with another, pulling one forward, moving one from behind the bar to the front. I’d done this enough myself to know that sometimes it’s a readying for the coming rush but other times is just to keep yourself busy or at least make yourself look so.
And then Walt walked in.
“See?” Walt said, his arms out in presentation. “Didn’t I tell you I knew what you needed?”
Had he? I looked around, trying to figure what about it was what I needed.
“It’s a Michigan bar!” He looked proud, like he’d solved a puzzle.
There were Tigers and Lions and Red Wings pendants and jerseys and other memorabilia all over the place, a shelf of beer cans and bottles, some of which I recognized as Michigan beers. At first I wasn’t sure why he’d brought me here, then remembered I was living and working in Michigan the first time we’d met. I wasn’t from there, didn’t really care about their sports, and had already moved on to another kitchen job in another state by the next time I returned to town and we hung out again. I didn’t know if Walt knew that or not. Apparently Michigan was what he remembered about me.
Walt made a straight line to the bar, sat on a stool like it had been saved for him. Two beers were already being placed in front of us by the time I settled on the stool next to him.
“Put that twenty right here on the bar for Michigan,” Walt said, tapping the bar between us. I wondered if “Michigan” was his nickname for the bartender or we were cheersing the state or what. Didn’t really matter. I got my wallet out, put the twenty down on the bar where he’d tapped. Picked up my beer and clinked it into his.
Walt put his beer down without drinking any, which I was pretty sure was bad luck, hell, Walt may have even told me so, and just like that, he was gone.
“You from Michigan?”
I looked to my left, where the voice had come from. The Miller High Life lights over the pool table backlit the woman next to me in a glowing dive-bar halo.
“Not really,” I started. “I did when—”
“I have family in Michigan,” she said. She held up her left hand, palm toward me. I remembered that was a thing, identifying places in Michigan on your hand, only she had the wrong hand. She didn’t catch it and I didn’t say anything. She took her right index finger and started tracing the lifelines on her palm. I stared at her finger tracing those lines that looked like tree roots or veins, everything connected, everything giving life to everything else. For the first time in my life, I believed in hypnosis. I would have watched her until the ends of time if she’d never snapped her fingers to wake me up. “I don’t know where they are! I’ve never been,” she said, and laughed at herself.
I got self-conscious that I’d been staring. I looked at my beer and it was empty. When had that happened? Walt’s was still full. Walt was still missing.
“Sure!” Then I thought of something. “Actually . . .” I stuttered. “That twenty’s all I got. I left my card at the last place. Should I go get it? I could go get it real quick?”
The bartender put another down in front of me. “Don’t worry about it. Walt said to put it all on his tab.” I looked at my twenty still sitting there on the bar where I’d dropped it.
“What are you doing here?” It was a guy on the other side of the Champagne of Angels who I hadn’t noticed before.
“Here or here?” I answered, and then laughed at my little inside joke. The guy stared at me, confused, and the woman’s leg brushed up against mine. I’d forgotten how electric that could feel.
“Wait. You live on a houseboat?”
I looked at Walt, at the bartender, at the guy behind her who I’d mostly forgotten was there, all looking for reassurance that this was crazy.
“Well, right now I’m in this bar.”
I took a deep breath. She knew what I meant. Her leg brushed mine again and I wondered what she meant.
We were landlocked, in the middle of the country, nowhere near a body of water large enough to live on, far as I knew. It was Wednesday, maybe Thursday. One of those middle of the week days. At least one of us was, at that very moment, probably right there in the middle of their life. Everything was middles of middles.
“What are you doing here?” The question everybody had to ask someone else at least once. We all got our turn.
“Drinking. Same as you.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Walt raised his beer and the woman raised her beer and the bartender rung a bell that I hadn’t noticed before and still didn’t, I only heard it, and I raised my beer and we all took turns cheersing each other and it all felt fun and ridiculous and just weird enough as to maybe be exactly what I’d been looking for after all.
“C’mon,” Walt said.
I turned on my stool to look at him. The woman’s hand grabbed my leg.
I stood up and her hand fell off my leg.
“You’re leaving?” she asked. “Will you be coming back?”
Walt was already halfway to the door.
“Maybe!” Though I knew it unlikely.
Before he pushed the door open into the night and whatever was next, Walt pushed both arms up into the air as if in victory, and yelled for me, for the whole bar, the whole city, the world and everything beyond, “We’re motherfucking sharks!”
“That guy was missing a leg.”
“What?” Again, I trailed a step or two behind Walt while he strode through the night with a kind of purpose I wasn’t sure I’d ever walked with. “Which guy? What are you talking about?”
“The guy with the girl you were talking to?”
“You’re fucking with me.” In Boy Scouts, there’d been a kid who loved to tell people lies just to then say he was making it all up. His dog had cancer, his grandfather was a Nazi, his family had died in a house fire. Stories too horrible and tragic and sad for someone to make up. No one ever knew why he did it, but he’d laugh and laugh and laugh when he made you feel most sympathetic to only then break the spell. Just kidding!
“I’m not. He’s in the bar all the time.” Walt stopped walking, looked both ways. “C’mon, this way.”
“How’d he lose it?”
“I don’t know, man. That’s the thing! He loves showing it off and laughing at people’s surprise, but he won’t ever tell anyone what happened.”
“Does he live on the houseboat with her? Think he lost it . . . Related to that somehow?”
“What houseboat?” Walt stopped again. A car beeped, he looked around.
“She said she lived on a houseboat. I was confused because . . .” I gestured around at the entirety of the middle of the country all around us.
The car beeped again, and Walt walked straight toward where the sound came from.
“I don’t know about that. He’s in there all the time though. I’ve never seen her before.”
“You said they were together?”
Walt got in the car, shut the door.
“C’mon, get in. We’ll go get your card.”
I walked around the car to the other side. “Sorry about this,” Walt said, when I opened the door. The passenger seat was moved all the way forward, the backseat was full of . . . stuff. Long pieces of wood and metal jutted up between the seats into where my head would go.
“You can fit, you just gotta . . .” Walt shimmied his body around, like that was how I’d get into the car. “We’ll make a pitstop, get rid of this shit. I’ve been meaning to, just keep putting it off. We’ll dump it, maybe make one other quick stop, go get your card. Just like old times!”
None of this seemed like old times. Or maybe all of it did.
Walt pulled into an apartment complex and, instead of parking near whichever building was his, he kept going all the way to the back. He parked, got out, opened the hatchback, grabbed a giant trash bag, and threw it into the dumpster.
“This all garbage?”
“More or less,” Walt said. He grabbed the smallest rocking chair I’d ever seen and tossed it in, too.
“Which building’s yours?”
That stopped him. “What? I don’t live here.” Walt looked around. “This shithole? No way.” He grabbed an endtable, threw it in.
I looked at my wrist like I was checking my watch. I twisted in my seat to see everything in that backseat. I thought of my car parked across town, how much of my life was collected inside. I thought of everything I’d left behind when I’d moved out. A part of me had thought I might come back for some of it one day, even while knowing I wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure what difference it would have made but suddenly wished I’d thrown it all away myself, left nothing behind.
“Hey!” The voice was deeper and further away than Walt’s. I turned to try and find the guy and bumped my head into the metal pole.
“Fuck!” I rubbed my head.
“What’d you say to me?” The guy’s voice was louder, closer.
“What’s your problem?” Walt yelled at the guy. I slunk down in my seat.
“You tell me to fuck off?”
“Walt!” I called out to him. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“You don’t fucking live here!” the guy said.
“What’s that matter to you?” Walt yelled back.
I sat up, looked out my window. Saw a giant walking a tiny dog toward us. This was more trouble than I’d been hoping for. Way more than a medium amount.
“The matter with me? You’re my matter, fuckhead. These dumpsters are for residents only.”
Jesus, we were about to get in a fight because of improper dumpster use?
I put my hand on the metal pole, shook it, wondering if I could get it loose. There was no way I was swinging it at someone, but maybe holding it up would be intimidation enough? Would convince Walt of the urgency for us to get out of there.
I pictured myself getting out of the car wielding this giant metal pole. Holding it up like a baseball bat and standing tall, authoritative. Swinging it around. And then I heard it. It was quiet, but undeniable. That song was burned into my brain. Meat Loaf crooning everything he’d do for love.
“Walt!” I yelled. “Walt!” one more time. He didn’t take his eyes off the giant but I could tell I’d gotten his attention. He was listening. “Sharks!” I yelled, loud as I could.
Walt’s whole posture changed. Loosened, relaxed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Walt said, to the guy, but loud enough I knew it was for me, too. “Don’t worry about us, man. We gotta keep moving!”
I don’t even know if that’s true or not. If sharks have to keep moving or they’ll die. I’ve never looked it up. I don’t really want to know. I don’t want to find out it if it isn’t. Walt and me were sharks, this town our body of water. I remembered my years of driving around and around and around this ocean of a country, how it felt like a little death every time I stopped for too long.
And then Walt was already back in the car next to me, putting the car in drive, strapping on his seatbelt, and turning the radio up all at once.
“Let’s get out of here?” he said, but like a question.
“Here or here?” I said, unable to help myself.
Walt let out a laugh like I’d never heard before and I forgot my panic for a brief second. A laugh that sounded like the universe opening up into something new, like time no longer mattered, like every moment could stretch all the way out to forever, like standing hypnotized in an aquarium watching everything happening on the other side of the glass, and on the other side was a world of possibility, all the way back to the beginnings of time and also out ahead of us until the end of everything, and that’s what I remember about that night, how anything and everything had seemed possible, even if only for the briefest of moments.
AARON BURCH grew up in Tacoma, WA. He is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body; a short story collection, Backswing; and a novella, How to Predict the Weather. He is the founding editor of Hobart and, more recently, its offshoot journals, HAD and WAS. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI.
YEAR OF THE BUFFALO is out November 8, 2022 from American Buffalo Books. Pre-order your copy here.