“The Half Moon never closes,” says a voice behind me. The voice is flat, the words an unremarkable statement of fact. I turn towards the street to see a short man clad tightly in a second skin of asphalt-colored denim, a guitar case hanging from a skeletal hand. The man’s beard puffs outward like crabgrass, sprouting wildly so that everything beneath his bladed nose is lost in a wild thicket of hair the color and shape of Spanish moss. It takes me a moment to see the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and realize that he’s smiling.
“We do today, Zeke’s got a family emergency,” I say, collapsing our 2-sided signboard and leaning it by the doorway. The signboard sports a wolf’s head and a crescent moon, an upper lip curled back to show rows of fierce, dinosaur teeth. Zeke commissioned a local artist to paint the board decades ago, after they’d collaborated on the logo for the bar’s t-shirts and hats. I told him to make the wolf mean, Zeke said to me once, but still beautiful to look at.
“A family emergency,” the man says, chewing on the words beneath his beard. He continues to stand on the sidewalk, uncomfortably close to me. I can see his reflection in the smoke-blackened window of the bar, his head obscured by gold lettering lacquered across the glass.
“I walked all the way from Canton,” the man says. “It’s going to rain.”
I begin adding unnecessary layers of tape to the corners of the sign pasted to the front door, CLOSED TONIGHT, COME BACK SOON. I let the man’s words drift off in the breeze. I can smell the brine from the harbor on the wind.
“Closed or no, Zeke owes me twenty five bucks,” the man says, nudging the back of my leg with the front of his guitar case. I turn around again, see him there, unchanged, skin pinched at the corners of his eyes, his whole frame rigid.
“You’re Red Jones’ replacement,” I say, “You’re the early act.”
The man nods. Across Aliceanna Street, a group of men in suits laugh loudly, walking in a cluster towards Broadway and the bars at the hotel-end of Fell’s Point. The sky over downtown Baltimore is overcast, underlit from beyond the concrete skyline. Lights are flipping on in windows. The sodium glow of a streetlight paints an orange halo along the brick canyon walls of our street.
“Can I speak with him?” the man asks. His eyes move to Zeke’s apartment windows above the bar, then back to me. I notice the faded letters on his denim jacket, the red and white 81 patch sewn across his left shoulder.
“You’re from the old family,” I say. Immediately, I feel the awkwardness of my words, letting their sound hang uncomfortably for a moment. “All I know is that he just called me and JR in to close up, said he had business out of town. He’s been hiding upstairs since I got here.”
The man lets his guitar case down on the sidewalk and straightens his back, stretching from side to side in a fluid and easy motion. He suddenly looks younger, as if the clothes and the wrinkles and the wild beard were a costume, as if he were a gymnast or a boxer, shaking out his muscles. He crooks his neck and stepped forward, his clear green eyes now visible beneath his brow, the wrinkles on his face relaxed. The fronds of his mustache move when he speaks, the ligaments in his jaw flexing but his mouth still hidden.
“How old are you, son?” he says, quietly now, his breath brushing against the front of my neck.
My gut tightens. “Twenty-two,” I say, smiling dumbly.
The man’s eyes drift to the windows above me again and stay there.
“You got a dollar for the bus,” he says, not a question.
“I do,” I say.
“Right,” he says.
“Right,” I say.
After the man is gone, I stand outside for a while smoking a cigarette, clenching and unclenching my fists in my pockets until JR arrives. He eventually shambles up the street, hood up and eyes down, glass crunching under his boots. Music floats down from Broadway. I gaze up toward the muffled roar of a jetliner in the distance, and see Zeke’s face in the windows above the bar, pale and framed in darkness.
The bags are black plastic. There are two of them, 30-gallon deals, double-knotted tightly at the top and stretched taut around a pair of large, oblong shapes on the floor. JR looks at me and I look at him and then we look at the bags, each of us guessing at what might be inside. We’re standing in Zeke’s kitchen, on curling linoleum, in darkness except for the thin sideways light from the window above the sink. The kitchen is overflowing with Tupperware, canned goods, and many more black plastic bags. The refrigerator clicks on, and a stack of unwashed dishes vibrates in the sink with a steady hum. Bleach tickles my nose. JR takes hold of a bag, but when he pulls up, the plastic beneath the knot stretches like a neck, squealing quietly. He groans and takes a step backwards, pulling the bag and its contents along the floor but not off of it.
“We might have to team up on these,” he says in a breath, releasing the knot and resting both palms on his thighs. “You sure you’re up for this?”
“Zeke said to bring them down quickly—one trip,” I say, sniffing the air and trying to sound tough.
“We could push them out and slide them down the steps,” he says. He stays bent forward, his hands resting on his kneecaps.
“No way, we’ll tear the bags.”
The odor of bleach is now scalding, a sharp whiteout of other smells lingering in the kitchen. I can see the skin around JR’s eyes reddening as he appraises the bags, their strange shape, their mysterious contents. A soft rain begins tapping against the kitchen window, and the light outside dims beneath a broad gray table of clouds. We hear a car horn echo through the alley from the street below.
JR rolls up his sleeves, revealing a network of veins running up the insides of his forearms. The veins wind through the uneven edges of a homemade tattoo, blue ink spreading out near the inner crux of his elbow like a fresh bruise. He lets out a long breath and then squats, taking hold of a knot with one hand and scooping his other arm underneath the object at the bottom of the bag.
“Grab the door,” he says, and then heaves upward.
Zeke was once a Hell’s Angel. That was a long time ago, or maybe not so long, depending on whom you ask. The Angels don’t show up often, and when they do they mostly bypass the bar and go directly up the back stairs to see Zeke. I’ll get a phone call and instructions to leave a bucket of pony beers at the foot of the alley steps, and then I’ll be on my own again downstairs with the crowd and the noise and the beating heart of the Half Moon Saloon.
Zeke lives above the bar with his two ancient basset hounds and his longtime girlfriend, Hilda, who cooks the bar food and does the finances. He walks his dogs down to the Broadway market for fried chicken in the mornings, stoop-shouldered and pulling at the white hairs of his beard, his wolf-logo trucker hat pulled low over his eyes. Zeke is good with people in his own measured way. He lets them do most of the talking, but he has a deep reservoir of stories tucked away for those rare moments when he allows himself to be the center of the conversation. He carries a 9 Millimeter handgun tucked into his jeans – a weapon JR told me had been loaned to him by a dirty cop—when he drives Hilda to the bank for the weekly drops, and he smokes a bottomless pack of cigarettes. His teeth are the color of stained filters. I have never seen him drunk.
Zeke becomes part of the woodwork on bustling nights, sitting quietly at the near end of the bar and defocusing his eyes to the people moving past him. He drinks mostly coffee, playing with scars along his knuckles and chewing little black plastic straws. He is never “home” when most people come calling; we bartenders take messages for him, leave business cards and demo CDs by the register. He remains hidden behind the crumbling walls of the bar, a phone number with an answering machine, a name printed on liquor delivery checks. Many of the regulars who have fallen out touch or grown apart from Zeke talk about the Half Moon in pejorative terms—it’s not as wild and dangerous as it used to be, the beers are all foreign and fancy now, the blues bands and open mike lineups have changed. When they speak to me about it, they do their best to show me how tough the place once was, how much I am somehow emblematic of what has changed, of what has gone wrong. They talk about Zeke like the college friend who got married and disappeared, a man whose exit from the world has pushed their shared history into dusty vaults of golden and romantic regret.
Hilda has her blue pickup truck idling by the alley when we get the bags down the steps. She watches us with a frown as we stagger under the weight, JR and I holding both bags on top of each other and short-stepping the curb into Aliceanna Street. Hilda exits the cab of the pickup and opens the tailgate for us. She is a round woman, the equator of her hips covered by black jeans and a loose, low hanging sweatshirt. Her face is strained in the twilight, cut by shadows and splashed in the red of the brake lights. Her hangdog cheeks sag, her mouth hangs slightly open. The truck shudders when the bags hit the bed.
“Careful goddamnit,” she hisses, “you will not let those bags break.”
JR and I slide the bags with a long squeak across the rubber bedliner. When the bags are in place we look at the lumps, their black plastic skin now flecked with tiny bits of the fine rain that’s filtering down from above. I picture them lurching like black larva over the side and sliding off into the gutter. After a minute, Zeke emerges from the alley behind us, a heavy canvas tarp folded in his arms. There are no words, no coffee-teeth smile. He hands the tarp to us and we each climb into the truckbed, wrapping the bags tightly in the tarp and listening to the rusty protests of the truck’s shock absorbers. Zeke then approaches Hilda and hugs her. I catch JR watching, and I stop to watch as well.
In my nine months of work at the Half Moon I’ve never seen them actually touch one another. Theirs is a relationship of utility, something unpunctuated by public shows of affection. They mostly communicate in notes, stickies left pasted to the register or the back alley door—chores to be done, deliveries expected, changes of schedule. They never come into the bar at the same times, and on the nights that they’re both downstairs they sit in different corners, with different atmospheres of friends and hangers-on, each enveloped in a private halo of smoke and secret laughter.
Hilda gives a soft moan when he releases her, and her eyes shine wet. Zeke leans down a little and whispers something, and she nods. Before I turn away, I see the back of Zeke’s jacket lift up just a little to expose the black handle of a pistol in his waistband.
In my third month at the Half Moon, an old man with a pink, crinkled face sat down at my bar and asked me for a straw. I was full of nervous energy at the time, eager to impress and to somehow blend in to the mythology of the bar. So far, tourists had seemed happy to talk to me about sports and politics, but I was always aware of how this association singled me out when the daylight waned and the low-light crowds staggered in, tossing bottle caps at the garbage with their thumbs and rapping their knuckles along the bar to Merle Haggard. I’d learned to shut up more, to not mention my time at the fancy university up the road, but I still was who I was. Nothing authentic, weathered, or familiar with violence. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
The old man with the pink face sat placidly and waited. I pulled a straw for him and he immediately took out a pocketknife and cut it in half. Missing the significance of this, I wandered back to my busywork. Halfway through serving a reheated hamburger to another customer, I looked up to see the old man bent over the bar, the straw halfway up his nostril as he snorted a line of powder off the inside lid of an Altoids tin. I watched him for a moment, confused, feeling the eyes of the customer with the hamburger moving back and forth between me and the scene next to him. When I came around the bar the old man snorted faster, shielding me away with a bony shoulder. I took hold of him by his ribs and pulled him off the stool, and he let out a shriek like a dying rabbit, setting the hounds upstairs barking. Then he went limp in a self-congratulatory pose, smiling and staring past me with cloudy pupils. He was light, and beneath his leather jacket his body was soft and pliable, like luggage. The insides of my arms pressed against his bones. He made no motions to complain or come back inside after I had deposited him on our doorstep. He just sat there for a while, humming and chewing his cuticles in the sunshine.
We keep a notched field hockey stick tucked in the crease between the tap and the beer case, an artifact from the bad old days at the Half Moon. For the rest of that afternoon I kept it leaning against my hips as I stood, eyes wide and watching pictures of my father in my mind, wishing not to be asked to do that ever again.
In the cab of the truck, JR is fidgeting. He touches his thumb to the tip of each finger in rapid sequence, his lips moving in silent count while his forehead leaves a greasy smear against the passenger windowpane. He liked to boast about the games guys would play in prison, pretending the handle of a toothbrush was a knife blade and stabbing it quickly between the spaces of their fingers, betting on a slip. His thumb never misses his fingertips. Tap tap tap tap tap and then in reverse, like a pianist.
To my left, Zeke drives in silence. In his teeth sits a long line of ash that hovers impossibly against the tip of the cigarette filter, the smoke drifting downward out of his nostrils in a fog. I am sandwiched between them, my head resting against the back window, my skin massaged by the steady thrum of the diveshaft beneath the seat. Nobody’s spoken since we got in the truck, but JR is a coiled spring, his eyes darting with the motions of his fingers.
We follow MLK Boulevard along the border dividing the harbor district of downtown from the black neighborhoods to the southwest. JR lives somewhere out there, in a red brick row house several blocks past an industrial park. I visited him once for a cookout, and we’d sat on benches among the weeds of his yard, listening to a three-piece band who’d set up on the roof of his back porch. He’d told us stories about moving in, about being the only white guy in the neighborhood and doing a house-to-house meet and greet with the neighbors in a cowboy hat. He told us about buying heating oil from a man who just shows up in a truck, cash for oil, handshake and done. He told us about his idea of living all the way off the grid, a life invisible to police and driver’s licenses and credit cards. As the cookout wound down, he talked eagerly with the band about plans to buy a bike and get involved with the old family, about getting Zeke to put a word in for him, about doing some real work. The band listened and broke out bags of cocaine. I left the party early.
“Uncle Zeke, can we stop for cigarettes?”
Zeke turns a little and looks across me towards JR, the ash collapsing off his filter into his lap, the last trails of smoke drifting upward and away.
“No stops, Killer,” he says, handing JR his Marlboros. He calls us Killer when he’s in a mood, something like a term of endearment that’s meant to mask his displeasure with something we’ve done. JR reverses the order of his finger-thumb fidgeting.
“How long we got to go?” JR asks.
Zeke chews the dead filter of his cigarette and brings the truck into high gear, merging from the interstate onramp into 95 southbound traffic. His eyes move between the road and the rearview. Checking the bags.
“We’re going to the farm,” he says. “Sheppard is waiting for us, so no stops.”
JR’s fingers stop moving. His head stays tilted against the window, his eyes still and reflecting the high beams of passing cars. Sheppard is our cop. More specifically, he’s a 20-year vet with an apocryphal body count who oversees the afterhours drinking we run between closing and 4AM on weekends. He’s a sit-in drummer for the open-mic acts too, but he’s as bored of that role as he is with being a cop. He’s also the reason JR is allowed to work at an establishment that serves alcohol, some closed-door compromise with his parole officer a few years back.
Sheppard has one expression which he wears without effort; a severe, loose-cheeked stare that never seems to fix on anything in particular. When he laughs, his features twitch and fall back into place quickly like molded rubber, and from the gouged depths of his eyes comes no indication that anything was actually funny. His pupils are ink spots, and his gaze is always half-lidded. He speaks softly with a voice that is tired of yelling.
The first time Sheppard ever spoke to me he was carrying a practice amplifier in one hand and a guitar case in another. He dropped the equipment on the stage and asked who was playing, and I showed him the bill for that night’s open-mic.
“Keep an eye on my stuff tonight,” he said. “I’ll be back around 12, so tell someone if you move it.”
“Don’t worry, I’m working straight through,” I said, acting casual so he’d be aware that I knew who he was. “You on call tonight?”
“Nope, I have somebody I have to go see.” I noticed he was wearing a tie and khakis. I could smell cologne.
He thought for a moment, rubbing his thick hands across the edge of his scalp. I’d heard stories about those hands going to work on JR, seen the bruising once after he’d been caught drinking on probation.
“My wife might be coming by later during open mic. If she beats me here… if she asks, I got called away for work.”
“You know who she is, right? What she looks like?”
“Yea,” I lied, making a mental note to ask Zeke about it as soon as Sheppard left.
“Good man,” he said, and I grinned. He downed a shot of scotch and told me that his wife had found a sitter for the baby when she learned that he might sit in with the band that night, so that there was no good way around “misdirecting” her, as he put it. I made him another double, which he picked up and declared “for the road”. He stared past me with his inkpool eyes and then nodded goodbye, affectionately patting the bar on his way out into the darkness as if he were congratulating the room for some long-awaited favor.
In the cab of our truck, JR begins the finger dance again, and I know he’s thinking about Sheppard too. Behind us, the lights of Baltimore steam in the distance like oil fires.
In the late summer, a young couple came into our bar around sunset. The guy was all hand gestures and the girl was dressed in a white wool turtleneck despite the heat. They had a few drinks and eventually she pulled off her sweater, revealing a long, jagged scar running from her clavicle to the soft undercurve of her dimpled chin. She stayed quiet while the guy called me over and launched into a story about an abusive ex-boyfriend of hers, some nutcase who showed up at her restaurant and left her threatening notes scrawled onto the checks. A real fucker. Worked construction, type-A with a pickup truck who hit quickly. He kept on like this until she finally leaned over the bar towards me and JR and interrupted.
“He didn’t do this to me—the ex,” she said.
I nodded and glanced at JR, who had stopped rinsing the mats to listen.
“It was the razor wire.”
JR walked over. The guy leaned forward and pulled up his right sleeve to reveal a patchwork of gauze and saran-wrap, blotched with rusty stains that left a dry line caked along the ridges of his veins.
“Caught us when we jumped the fence at his job site,” he continued. “Caught us on the way out after I’d beat that truck of his all to shit.”
I tried picturing the scene, but found myself thinking about how this guy kind of looked like JR. Maybe a little bigger and with a cleaner haircut, but something in his posture, his skin, the brutal confidence of his voice. He had that look of indistinguishable age, weathered but plausibly young, a leanness that could make him anywhere between 20 and 50. He twitched when he talked, unconsciously moving his hands on and off the girl’s shoulder; the hands that broke a truck. The girl had wheat-colored hair, and her eyes held mine. She was inviting me to look at the raised black line that pulled at the pink, infected skin of her neck. I didn’t see stitches.
“I fell back on the inside of the fence,” she said. Her eyes were clear blue, her face pale. “So I ran back over to his truck and bled all over that thing.”
I awake from a dream about house fires. Some narrow escape through long hallways and out through the frame of a house, maybe my old house, enveloped in flames, my skin beginning to smoke and blister. Then my eyes are open and my face is pressed against the heating vent of Zeke’s truck. I am drooling, and I hear the ding ding ding of the door alarm and realize I’m alone in the cab.
The rain has stopped, and the night has settled full and deep around us. I smell the bitter mold smell of rotten leaves and sweet hints of wet earth. Crickets hiss in the trees. JR is smoking just outside the passenger door, Zeke and Sheppard are standing ten yards away in the headlights of the truck, and in my grogginess it feels like we are divers at the bottom of the blackest ocean. Bugs swirl through our little window of light, a fine snowfall of detritus settling into seagrass that waves in softly in the current. The men talk for a while. The moon peeks over the eaves of the farmhouse behind them. Then, ahead in the light, I see Zeke’s hand reach back to his waistband and remove the pistol. Suddenly the grogginess falls away with a rush, and the echo of crickets and that endless dinging of the keys in the ignition rise in pitch. I watch Zeke hand the pistol to Sheppard and then motion to us. JR disappears behind the truck and then reappears by the passenger window with a pair of shovels. He raps the wooden shafts against the glass and grins a row of uneven teeth. His eyes seem to shine. I feel a sick sensation begin to churn in my gut.
“It’s time, Killer,” he says, in his best Zeke drawl.
“Why do you want to work in a place like this?” Zeke had asked me once. We were sitting by the front window, framed in hot morning sunshine and divided by the long-tooth shadow of the wolf on the glass. On the notched mahogany bartop lay my resume, my college GPA and lists of jobs and schools and awards. Zeke’s coffee sat on top of the corner, staining a half-ring along the edge. Cockroaches ran the highway of wires underneath the beer cooler, and a John Hurt CD skipped along at low volume.
“I like music,” I said. I thought of my father then, an ancient, severe shadow reading his law journals in the kitchen. “And I hated school.”
“About time we get to do some real work,” JR is saying between deep breaths. We have a bag held between us, but I can barely hear him. The brake lights of the truck flicker on the plastic like a neon fire, and I am feeling sick and light-headed. JR’s voice is excited, and I can see that toothy grin still half-cocked at the corner of his mouth, a puff of steam with each exhalation as we step through the high grass. We’ve spent twenty minutes digging a pit several feet deep in Sheppard’s side yard, and my hands are blistered from the splinter-chipped shaft of the shovel. I can feel the plastic shifting in my grip. The bulk inside of the bags is slipping away from the cradle of my forearms and beginning to stretch downward like a black drip of oil.
“Steady, hold it,” JR whispers, and we both kneel to the let the bag down gently.
“You gotta grab the stuff inside, you can’t hold it by the bag,” he says.
I feel a little stab of panic when he says this, a quick and surprising feeling, like waking up and falling asleep at the same time. The wet breeze brushes my hair, and the raw skin of my hands throbs. Dread has been pooling up in my stomach since we’d dug the hole. You’re digging a grave, a voice has been saying. It’s a grave and you are digging it.
I shake my head to clear it. JR stares at me, and I keep my eyes on the bag.
“You better fucking do this,” he says.
Over our shoulder at the edge of the headlights I see Zeke standing in the pit, waist deep and working with his hat turned backwards. Slowly, I reach down and find a grip on the mass in the bag, closing my fingers around a fleshy object with a solid center that slides against the layers of plastic. My skin catches fire, but I squeeze and count to three, and we lift.
“Do you miss home?” Zeke asked.
I held the diploma from the 2-week bartending school in my hands, sliding the paper between my palms and feeling the upraised lettering on the stamped seal. Behind Zeke, along either side of the liquor shelf were rows of photographs. Happy faces in camera-flash, figures standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the stage, a dog’s nose pressed at an angle against the camera lens. There was a shot of Zeke holding JR on the seat of a Harley, the boy swaddled in winter clothing, his mittens clutching the handlebars and his smile half-hidden behind the earflaps of a red hunter’s cap. I thought of my father on graduation day, sweating in a blue-grey suit in the shade of a tent, reading a book while we stood in line by the stage. I thought of birdcalls on the back deck at our house, the sound of their wings like the swing of a racket as they ambushed bugs at twilight.
“Home, yes. My family, no.”
Zeke frowned, shifted in his barstool, picking up my resume to have a closer look.
“Family’s all you got, Killer,” he said.
The bags tear when we get to the edge of the pit. JR and I take a step out of time, his left and my right moving at exactly the wrong moment, the tips of my shoes catching a tuft of grass in the dark and pitching our center of gravity forward. We claw at the edges of the plastic, and my fingers find purchase at the same instant that there’s a sharp sound; a screen door on rusty hinges opening, the hiccup of a drowning voice. I fall to my knees and watch the plastic stretch and come free, a ragged handful left hanging in my grip. The jolt of the impact echoes up and down my bones. JR is on his stomach, his torso hanging over the edge of the pit, his legs scissoring in the grass. A stink of bleach washes over us, followed by a whiff of rot. We both stay in this position, frozen for the moment.
To our left, the shadow of Sheppard appears and then stops. He is holding cups of coffee in each hand. His features are hidden, backlit by the headlights so that his hair whips like smoke.
I see JR get to his knees, turning from the pit towards me with a face that I can’t figure. His features flex and relax, ending in a kind of scowl, his eyes a little glazed, his chest heaving. It’s a look I feel that I remember but can’t place; something not fully-formed, caught in an ugly metamorphosis. Later I’ll come to know that look for what it is – desperate disappointment, naked and raw, first outward, then inward, then quickly layered over before anyone can see. JR hangs his head, and lets out a long sigh.
And then Zeke is crying. Long, slow sobs, a muffled wet breathing that pulses in and out, over and over. It is the only sound in the world. He stands limply, head lowered, cheeks wet and eyes downward into the dark. Beneath him in the pit, the edge of its features gilded by light from above, is the rough line of a muzzle and jaw, the fleshy jowl and corner of a hound’s ear. In the moonlight, the tips of the hairs along its brow are bleached white, and in its glassy eyes swim a sea of night stars.
GABRIEL HOUCK is originally from New Orleans, and studies in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has MFAs in writing from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Iowa, and his work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Flyway, Spectrum, Sweet, Western Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Grist, PANK, The Pinch, Moon City Review, and Mid American Review, where he was lucky enough to win the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize. He and his 15-year-old dog are currently working on his first short story collection, along with a nonfiction manuscript about a creationist museum in Kentucky.