Nights like this—a Friday night at last call after too much Pabst, and Jack, and Wild Turkey, and Seven and Sevens—we talk big. Why wouldn’t we? We know who we are—the lowlifes, the no-accounts, the pissants, the stumblebums. All liquored up. Ten foot tall and bulletproof in a going-nowhere-fast town in southeastern Illinois. This oil town, this farm town, this factory town, this Walmart-fucked town. We tell ourselves we’re made of steel, and then the bar shuts down the music, covers the pool tables, counts out the cash drawer, turns us out into the night.
A November night. Deer season. Shotguns on racks in pickup trucks, blood stains on bed liners, hoarfrost on the grass, moon in its last quarter, steam of our breath in the cold air, faint smell of leaf-smoke, boots scuffing over gravel in the parking lot, the Super 8 motel behind us, windows dark, travelers tucked in, not one of them thinking a thing about the likes of us.
Go home. We should go home. Sleep that drunk sleep. Sleep the sleep of the dead.
Then someone says, “Shit.” Says, “Who the fuck you think you are?”
“I’m your worst nightmare, motherfucker.”
Sometimes it takes a cliché for us to keep our daubers up. It takes a pack of lies and nerve and stupidity and balls hanging low. In short, it takes faith in the big hearts we swear we have. It takes faith to believe that one day we’ll be set. Living the good life. Chillaxin’ on easy street. Waving our dicks in the breeze.
Which is what we do on this night.
“Don’t touch my truck. Did I say you could touch my truck? I mean it, dipshit. Don’t fuck with my truck.”
“I’ll fuck with your truck, and you can’t stop me. I’ll do whatever the fuck I want. Got it, cocksucker?”
We cuss when we talk big. We get dirty. We let the ugly words lift us up. We never know which one will take us too far, carry us over to the other side of right thinking, be the word that later we wish we hadn’t said.
Tonight, it’s this: doubt. Sometimes it takes so little. As in, “I doubt that, amigo. I very much doubt that you’re going to do any-fucking-thing. I really do.”
Doubt—that word a fist to the throat, a knife blade to the lip, a tire iron across the head. Doubt your nerve, doubt your worth, doubt the weight of your balls, doubt you’ll ever amount to a pinch of shit.
Then, a boot heel to a headlight. Breaking glass. It’s the sound we’ll hear when eventually we close our eyes and try to sleep.
Not the whisk of the Glock pulled from a shoulder holster; not the “fuck you, motherfucker,” before the finger squeezes the trigger; not the noise of a man, gut-shot, falling to the frozen ground; not even the ambulance siren, the clacking of the gurney, the crackle of the cop’s radio, the suction of the doors opening at the hospital, our whispers in the waiting room, the wails of grief when word finally comes: died on the operating table, too much blood lost, nothing the doctors could do.
Just that glass. That glass breaking. Again and again. Always breaking.
So we talk big, motherfucker. We feel the air around us turn to ice. We heat it up with our words—Jesus Christ, holy shit, Goddamn it all to hell. We won’t let it press against us. We put out our chests, lead with our chins. These hospital doors open, and we push through, not about to admit how close we are to dwindling down to nothing. So we keep talking. Pissed off—bat shit crazy—talking big, big, big to tell ourselves we’re alive, to convince ourselves we’re still whole.
Afraid to be alone, afraid to shut our mouths, let our tongues go dead, our words dry up.
What’ll we be then?
Scared to death.
Lee Martin has published three memoirs, most recently, Such a Life. He is also the author of four novels, including Break the Skin and The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He teaches in the MFA program at The Ohio State University. (Lee talks about the genesis of this essay here on the Brevity blog.)
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett