Writing Project H12: Chapter 1: Closing Pages (Excerpt)
Sammy’s Sports Bar consistently drew a large crowd, even on a weeknight like this one. In fact, since its opening sixteen months ago, it had become a favorite among the hard-to-please, young partiers of Houma. The owners seemed to attribute their success to two things. The first, they claimed, was the atmosphere of the venue. Blending sports memorabilia with hearty doses of Cajun culture, the sports bar occupied an old parish government building in the center of town, and it aspired for an atmosphere that was a just little more rowdy than what was customary for this quaint town. Sammy’s first floor was one grand area equipped with the standard table games, enormous flat-screen televisions, two well-stocked bars – and for the drunk and foolish, a mechanical bull as the centerpiece. Meanwhile, the upper level offered the more convenient gathering place, a mezzanine where patrons crowded the bar, bumped shoulders with their peers, and listened to the DJ’s strictly hip-hop or rock-and-roll mixes. And if such lively, if tight, quarters were not enough for patrons, then there was the other thing that really kept them coming back – the second and real reason for Sammy’s success, at least according to the owners – the drink specials. After all, people in Houma, if nothing else, loved a good deal just as much as they loved to drink. Consequently, the owners of this establishment ran a different special every night, and on this fateful night, there happened to be two – half-priced Abita Beer and two-for-one Bud Lights, the indisputable beverages of choice in these parts.
David Meraux squeezed through the horde of people at the bar with four bottles in his hands. He never minded this place, but he truly did not care for the large crowd filled with its share of dejected angels and mischievous demons. Surely, David thought, all of these people crammed into one place had to constitute a violation of the fire safety code, if not just some code of decency. Sammy’s would never have been his first choice of hang-outs, especially on the night before his twenty-eighth birthday, but this was where his friends wanted to be, amidst all of the noise and revelry. He had grudgingly accepted that, and so, with nods to a few familiar faces, the young man made his way to a table occupied by his girlfriend and his housemate.
“…And so I told her, ‘I’m tired of your shit! You can kiss my big white ass, bitch!’ And she didn’t know what to say.” Harley Richard was concluding a story that prompted a bit of laughter from Paul Griffin.
David distributed the beers, even giving the fourth to Paul, and after kissing Harley, he took a seat. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Oh, baby, I was telling Paul how I quit my job last week,” Harley told him, taking a sip of her beer. “I was telling him how that bitch kept trying to get under my skin.”
“Sounds like she did,” Paul replied.
“Well, I was tired of putting up with her crap!” Harley spoke with swift and emotionally-charged words. “I was in coding at that clinic for – what? – two years. All of the sudden this new doctor flies in on her broom, and she thinks her Chicago ass is perfect. She felt like she could treat me like I was stupid or something.” Then Harley paused for another sip. “Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna put up with that shit! Fuck her!”
Harley might have sipped her beer, but Paul definitely chugalugged his own. Within a few moments, a whole bottle of beer vanished, and he dropped it back to the table with less than a thought. “So what are you gonna do now?” Paul asked her. He grabbed the second bottle, but he never lifted it to his lips.
To the question, Harley simply shrugged. “Who knows, right?”
David’s head shifted away from his friends, and his eyes began to wander –all in an effort to hide his frustration with the lewd and cavalier attitude from his girlfriend. He thought that he loved Harley Richard, but there were times when he was not sure. So many years ago, when he began dating Harley, she was a humble and quiet church mouse, and he loved that about her, because her disciplined lifestyle helped to change him from a lost frat boy and to prepare him for his career. Unfortunately, like all things, even this once mild-mannered, young woman changed with time, and David was fast realizing that such the change was not necessarily for the better. Now he did not feel the same connection; he felt like he did not even know her. Now he wanted out of this relationship, just as everyone around him, including Harley, was expecting him to go all in. After all, it was common knowledge that the engagement ring was paid for and sitting in his wall safe.
Paul looked to his despondent housemate. “Well, Harley, I am sure that someone has everything all figured out.” The comment was dripping with the type of sarcasm for which Paul was known, and this time, it was aimed directly at David’s conscience. Paul wanted his housemate to know that he also thought that marrying this woman was a big mistake.
David did not miss the message in Paul’s words, but he chose not to take an overtly defensive posture. Even though he was looking away, David replied evenly to Paul. “Yes, man, someone does.”
“Something wrong, baby,” Harley asked. “You have something on your mind?”
David returned to Harley with a great smile. “Not at all,” he insisted. “Nothing is on my mind. Just thinking of tomorrow is all.” There was no reason to tell his girlfriend the truth, or to let her know that the smile was disingenuous, David told himself. After all, he never wanted to hurt her.
From the corner of his eye, Paul caught a glimpse of his past—a gorgeous, young blonde in a sexy, black wrap dress, standing at the bar. “Megan,” he uttered in an almost inaudible voice. While the woman was engaged in a seemingly pleasant conversation with a group of other people, Paul decided to watch her for a moment. He saw her smiling and laughing; she seemed to be filled with an uncommon degree of joy and an extraordinary sense of peace. For once, Paul thought, that young woman did not seem burdened by …him.
David was the observant type. Even as he and Harley discussed his impending birthday, he also saw the young lady at that bar, and he was quick to notice the quiet regret that overcame his housemate. Now, David thought, was the perfect time to fire off his retaliatory salvo. “You know, Paul, if other people had their own shit figured out –“
Paul might have had the patience to accept his own self-ridicule, but he was less willing to hear it from someone else, especially when it came to such a delicate subject. His eyes tightened as he glared at his snarky friend. What a lucky son-of-a-bitch, Paul thought. A year ago, he would have beaten any man senseless for spouting off less than that—be he a friend or not. These days, though, Paul was more inclined to ignore the scrutiny.
“Well, wassup, fellas?” An unmistakable voice managed to neutralize what was sure to become a tense moment between the housemates.
Paul looked up and found John Nguyen standing over their table.
Over the years, the two had not remained close friends, but out of respect, David rose to shake John’s hand. “Hey, John, how’s it going?”
“Good,” John replied quickly. Then he shook hands with Harley and Paul. “I would have never figured you or Harley to be crazy about this scene, David.”
“Well, it’s not too bad,” David conceded. “Care to join us?”
John declined the offer, and then he pointed to Paul. “I was actually on my way to the bar. Come with me, and let me buy you one, Mr. Griffin.”
Paul looked back to the bar, where his eyes once again landed on that gorgeous enchantress. There was no way that he could go near her, he told himself. Then he looked up to John, and said, “No, thanks, man.” He held up the bottle of beer that he had yet to consume. “I’m still working on this one, actually.”
“Then let me buy you a shot,” John insisted in a stern tone. “We have something to talk about.”
That did not sound good, Paul thought. He grudgingly rose from his seat. “A’ight. Let’s get this shot.”
The two gentlemen reached the bar, and John shouted an order for two shots of Petron. While they waited for their drinks, their eyes immediately moved up to the flat-screen above the bar. The television was carrying a muted newscast about Hurricane Eryn, which had grown to a Category 3 storm, over just six hours, as it approached the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. According to the meteorologist, whose words were displayed in the closed captions, this hurricane would have reached the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, potentially as strong Category 2, within the next ninety-six hours, and making matters worse, some forecast models suggested that Southeastern Louisiana was in the crosshairs. That news, of course, drew the attention of other patrons, many of whom, like John and Paul, did not know what to think.
“Do you think that’s coming here?” Paul asked.
John paid the bartender and took possession of the shots, and as he handed one to his friend, he answered, “I sure as hell hope not.” Then he lifted his glass. “One thing I know, it’s not coming tonight, right?”
“What are we drinking to?” Paul asked, as he raised his own shot glass.
“Friendship,” John answered, rather simply.
“Okay.” Paul nodded, and then he swallowed the shot in one gulp. The stout texture of the vodka came as a surprise to him. “Damn! I forgot how hard that shit was!”
John had to laugh at his lifelong friend. “Can’t deal, huh? Oh, you’re getting soft.”
“I guess.” After pausing for a moment to look at the young woman, now only a few feet away, he returned to John Nguyen. “So what’s the deal? What’s so important for us to talk about?”
“What about friendship? Why do you have to be so fucking vague all the time?”
“Okay, here it is: I heard that you were not planning to go Christopher’s wedding. I am assuming that you aren’t gonna be interested in the bachelor party, either, right?”
“Swallow my pride, huh? Man, I have swallowed so much pride that I think I’m choking on it,” he said, bitterly. The temperamental, young man stepped up to the bar to order another drink. As he paid the bartender in the moments that followed, he asked his friend a sincere question: “Which one of them put you up to this – David, Danny, my parents? Who wants me to talk to Christopher?”
“Sorry, bud—but no one asked me to do this,” John admitted. “I just thought it was time to bring this up again.”
“And why are we talking about this shit again?” Paul took a sip of his drink. “You want me to go to this bachelor party?”
“Bullshit!” Paul reacted instantly. He took the liberty of finishing his drink in the silence that followed his words. Then he said, “You know, if he gave a shit about me—where has he been? Yeah, I had some problems, but I went to rehab. It took me some time, but I got clean. But my so-called best friend was not there to help me. I never got one call from him—not one in three years. Hell, I was not even invited to this fucking wedding, and I wouldn’t even know about if Harley hadn’t said something about David’s invitation.” The bitterness was beginning to show. “What is it with you and Danny, anyway? Does that asshole pay ya’ll to be his cheerleaders? You act like he is some good and honorable man. Well, dude, he isn’t. Christopher only cares about Christopher—and very little else. After he went off and built that business in New Orleans, he changed. He tossed everybody else on the side. In fact, the only reason either you or Danny is around him is because you make money for him.”
“Oh, here we go,” John sighed.
“Aw, don’t give me that. You know I am telling the truth,” Paul went on.
John thought that a concession would help to moderate Paul’s hostility and, with any luck, put his friend in a better frame of mind. “I don’t know, man. I mean, maybe you are right.”
Paul did bring his temper into check. “What did you think, John? I mean, honestly, we’ve been through this shit—oh, how many times? What did you think talking about this now was gonna change?”
“I don’t know, Paul,” the more sensible of the two admitted. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
John was amazed by the constancy of Paul’s position. Even after all this time, there was nothing that John could have said that would have breached that anger. Rather, it seemed that every word only agitated the situation, and what made matters worse, John realized, was the fact that the man whose honor he sought to defend, Christopher Harris, had done absolutely nothing, himself, over the years to petition for peace. Indeed, neither Christopher nor Paul seemed willing to rectify this three-year-old conflict, and John even doubted that either could remember the real root of their disagreement. No one else could—and for that matter, no one else really cared. This seemed so petty now, but Christopher and Paul would have had to understand that fact for themselves. Consequently, perhaps the best thing that John could have done, at this point, was to step away and stop trying.
“That’s it, I guess.” John was unaccustomed to defeat, and so, it seemed so strange that he suffered two of them in a matter of hours.
"Yes,” Paul replied. He seemed a little smug and unrepentant. “Are you done with me, John? If so, I’m gonna get back to my table.”
No sooner than those words left Paul’s lips did another development come to John’s attention. On the television, John saw the unique logo of the Harris Group displayed as the graphic in some reporter’s news story. While he could not hear a word of the newscast, Paul could tell from the closed captions that something serious was afoot.
“Hey, everyone, quiet! Quiet!” John shouted to nearby patrons, as he returned to the bar. Then the slender Asian gentleman pointed to a bartender. “You need to turn that up! Just turn it up!” The urgency in John’s voice commanded everyone’s attention, and the fact that he was barking orders to a bearded and burly black man did not go unnoticed, either. There was a relative hush from those immediately around him, and the television’s sound went up loudly enough to compete with the music and chatter.
“…However, a spokesman for Neretic, Inc, and representatives of the Harris Group, officially declined to comment on the rumors.” The story instantly began to attract the attention of more and more patrons. “The buyout of Neretic, which was first reported on a business news website, is said to have major organizational consequences for the shipbuilder. According to sources familiar with the deal, the group of buyers, which is being led by the Harris Group, plans to lay-off nearly 500 workers from Neretic’s 1,600-strong workforce, and it plans to replace a host of senior executives, including CEO Ted Duet. Sources also believe that the bulk of the lay-offs will affect the shipyard and corporate headquarters in Belle Chasse, as well as other operations in Houma and Mobile, Alabama. That news stunned workers and local leaders, alike.”
The scene cut to an interview with a laborer, an unnamed everyman standing outside the shipyard’s gates. “I’ve been here for seven years, but I guess that is not going to matter.” The man had obviously just completed a long day of work, and his words mesmerized this audience. “I didn’t know anything about no buyout before ya’ll told me, but I ain’t surprised. To these people” –his gloved fist went up in frustration—“it’s only about money. Nobody cares that I have a mortgage; nobody cares if my kids eat. If I get laid off, it’ll have nothing to do with my loyalty to my job. It’ll just be about money for them.”
Then there were words from a Plaquemine Parish government official. “If true, this is going to have a tremendous impact on Belle Chasse, maybe even on the better part of Greater New Orleans. You’re talking about hundreds of people being handed pink slips, in a time when there are so many other people are also out of work.” The politician spoke from a nondescript office. “What will these people do? In this economy, how are they going to find new jobs? These questions never get asked of the big-wigs when they start disassembling businesses, but I can promise you that a lot of Neretic employees are thinking about them.”
And finally the newscast returned to the reporter at her news desk. “Very little is known about the Harris Group, the company leading the buyout of Neretic. According to public reports and the company’s own website, the Harris Group was founded four years ago by Houma-native Christopher Harris, now a twenty-nine-year-old businessman. The investment firm that bears his name has holdings in a number of…”
The television’s sound was overwhelmed by the booing and shouts of disappointment from the patrons at the bar. Even if Christopher Harris was one of their own, these people still viewed the displacement of so many workers as a gross injustice. They were outraged and refused to stand quietly, while a cabal of monied jerks took it upon themselves to destroy people’s lives. Thankfully, the only thing that they had to shout at was the television.
In the wake of all the jeering, Paul looked on to his friend. John’s face was riddled with confusion, but feeling vindicated, Paul was smiling again. This time, he told John, “And what do you think of your dude now?” There was not a word that John could say, and Paul expected as much. “Give me a call whenever. I gotta get back to my table.” Paul maneuvered to simply walk away, when he suddenly made eye contact with the gorgeous blonde. The moment left him virtually paralyzed. “Megan,” he uttered her name once more.
“Paul!” An unexpected and guff voice emanated from the crowd.
The young man’s paralytic concentration was broken by the sound of his own name. Paul scanned the crowd for the source, and he found it. Bucking a path through the crammed space was a rough and quite immane fellow with distinctive tattoos protruding the collar of this polo shirt and down his right arm. It was Paul’s paternal cousin Carl Griffin—known along the bayou as “Big C”.
“What’s up, cuz!” Paul greeted the man with a cheerful hug. “How you been, boy!”
“Just got out, man, last week. Fuckin’ possession charge got me six months,” Carl told him. “But we are celebrating my freedom tonight.” He pointed to a troupe of friends and relatives to which he was referring. “You gotta join us. We are gonna leave and head over to The Cat House. We ain’t gotta fight a crowd, and they got a lot of fine asses there.”
Paul was very tempted to accept the invitation, but there was something that he had to do first. He surveyed the crowd again – this time, to find that amazing blonde. “Where is she?” he uttered.
“You mean Hot-n-Sexy? Look ova der.” Carl pointed to a couple heading down the stairs.
“Shit!” Paul reacted. He shoved his way through the crowd, but he did not reach them before they exited through the main entrance. Nevertheless, he pressed forward on the singular imperative that he had to stop her, and that he had to finally tell her how he felt about her. Once he too was outside of the bar, he found the young lady being assisted into a beautiful sports car by a strapping, well-dressed gentleman. “Megan! Megan, wait!” he shouted from across the street.
Megan Ramsey stopped short of getting into the vehicle. Instead, for several long seconds, she stood absolutely still, only looking to her date with a sense of regret. “I am so sorry,” she whispered into his ear. Then she turned away and approached the man from her past that had already begun to cross the street. “Paul, what are you doing?”
“I…I need to talk to you,” he began, rather sheepishly.
“What could we possibly talk about?” Megan asked. Despite her obvious frustration, her voice remained soft and supple. “I’m on a date. Are you intent on ruining this for me?”
Paul glared at Megan’s suitor with jealous scrutiny. “Who is that Kenneth Cole model with the Porsche?”
“His name is Dayne Torresani,” she answered. “He is an engineer here from Dallas.”
“Oh, a rich boy. I guess you guys are here slumming with us poor folks tonight, huh?” Paul fired off one of his cold insults almost instinctively. In fact, he never even realized that those words left his lips.
Megan was quite accustomed to these cheap verbal volleys from the bitter lad. Her first thought was to simply walk away, rather than to sink to his level. After all, she was no longer dating Paul Griffin; she did not have to endure his stupidity. “Good-bye, Paul.”
“No, wait!” he insisted, grabbing her arm.
“Meg!” Her date stepped like the most valiant of knights. He approached the two with fists tightened.
Megan did not need his help, though. With only a simple sigh, she commanded Paul to release her, and he did so, while lowering his head in shame. “Good-bye, Paul,” she repeated, and she walked away with her date.
Paul stood in uncommon silence, until the couple sped away. “Dammit,” he uttered in a mumble. It sure seemed that every opportunity was lost now, he thought.
“Man, Paul, fuck that bitch,” Big C commented, as he approached his cousin. “And if that faggot would have messed with you, we woulda fucked his ass up.”
Paul smiled, figuring that his cousin and the other bayou boys would have done just that. After all, it was their nature; they were always looking for another brawl.
“Fuck’em both, dude,” the unruly lad from Chauvin continued. He threw his arm over Paul’s shoulder and began to lead him away. “Tonight, man – no bitches, no bullshit. We just gonna get fucked up, and can’t no motherfucka say shit to us. If they do, then we just gonna kick some ass.”
# # # #
“Yo, Paul, you okay?”
The question seemed to bring Paul back to reality—sort of. His head was swimming, but for the most part, his thoughts were still quite coherent. This was what a rich buzz felt like.
“Paul, you okay?” one of the men at the table asked him.
Paul looked across the table to another cousin, Jeffery, and then to the other four men at the table. With his usual smile, he finally answered. “Yeah, Jeff, I’m doing good.”
“The kid’s drunk!” Big C laughed.
“Not drunk, man—just buzzing hard. “ Paul assured his cousin.
Well, maybe you are gonna wanna lay off a bit,” a third guy suggested. “I ain’t interested in picking your ass up off the floor like we used to.”
Paul only nodded, as he quietly agreed that slowing down was the smart thing to do. These were not the old days, and he did not need to embarrass himself as he might have, back then. Besides, even with all of the empty bottles and glasses before them, Paul was not able to tell how much he had –or had not—drank.
Jeffery bobbed his head to the music, and then he turned to his friends. “That bitch is fine!” He was referring to a girl dancing on the stage.
“No, dude,” Big C replied. “The black one serving drinks—now she’s fine.”
The Cat House was more than just a strip club; it was a bastion of big breasts and voluptuous assess, and while every girl was not a bombshell, for the right price, each of them was quite easy to have. Thank God, though, Paul thought, looking around the club. He was not drunk enough to hook up with any of these potential STD carriers.
An attractive, young red-head approached the table of the five fellows. “You boys want something else?”
“Hell yeah,” the third guy answered. “Name’s T-Craig, baby. You can get me some of your nice booty.”
“Boy, where’s your matters, Craig?” Jeffery immediately interjected. “You gotta excuse my podnuh here. He doesn’t get off the shrimp boat often.”
The waitress giggled. It became instantly clear that she was just another trick with an intellectual capacity no greater than a cocktail napkin. “Oh, he’s still cute,” she said, and then she bent over, allowing Craig the opportunity to grab her firm butt. “You like that, huh?” Then she looked to the other guys at the table. “How about another round of drinks or some shots, boys?”
Paul knew that a place like this survived on the perpetual consumption of alcohol by its horny patrons, and so, he was not surprised when his friends reeled off their own orders. “Yeah, a double—and get me a glass of Crown-and-Seven,” he added to the list, while glaring at his watch. It was not quite midnight, he noted, and he knew that Craig was not going to be satisfied until he was bringing this whore home. That meant there was a long night ahead. “Might as well get tossed, right?”
# # # #
“Hm, Vic,” his wife mumbled, as she rolled over.
“Go back to sleep, baby,” Vic whispered. Then he slipped into the bathroom, only to return several minutes later. He noticed that his wife had, indeed, drifted back to sleep. Gently, he kissed her forehead. “Bye, baby.”
With that, Vic walked out of the bedroom, and he moved on to the other side of the mobile home. He first opened the door to his son’s bedroom and then to his daughter’s bedroom – on both counts, being exceptionally quiet. And then, after grabbing two duffel bags in the hall, Vic stepped out of the backdoor and proceeded to his Ford truck.
“Lord,” Vic prayed, as he started the vehicle, “please be with my wife and children while I am away.” The prayer was another component of this ritual. He made the same request every single time that he left home. Unfortunately, Vic did not know that this was his last time.
Paul Griffin was quite twisted. He looked at the car’s digital clock, which read 2:57AM, and he realized that he had no recollection of the last three hours or so. He literally had no memory of anything after the double shot of tequila and the glass of Crown Royal and 7Up arrived at his table. Everything was a blurry muck, too convoluted to make sense, but now he seemed to be gaining his bearings again. Apparently, Paul figured, he was riding shotgun in Carl Griffin’s car, a flashy Nissan Maxima, and judging from the familiar landmarks, they appeared to be following Jeffery south, on Highway 56, a winding two-lane stretch of road that paralleled a familiar bayou. They had, no doubt, left Houma and were on their way to Chauvin.
“Look, Craig, your friend’s awake,” the red-haired waitress said from the backseat. “Guess he can hang, after all.”
Craig never looked up. He was far more interested in fondling her than to care about Paul’s condition.
“You okay, boy?” Big C asked, while taking the last drag of his cigarette. “Not too swirly, huh?”
“Nah, cuz, I’m straight,” Paul replied. “Why didn’t you just leave me in Houma?”
“Because ole girl back there said she wanted a piece of you, too, dude.” Big C grinned, as he pointed to the backseat. “Guess you don’t remember running game on her, do you? What about taking her to the back in da club? You and T-Craig are gonna run a train tonight.”
“And I can’t wait,” she said, as she began to remove her bra.
Paul conceded that she did not look too bad, but she was definitely a high risk. He wondered how he was going to get himself out of this mess.
“Yeah, Big C. I can’t wait, either.” Craig looked at the girl’s breasts, and then he leaned forward in his seat. “Don’t you have a super-charger or something in this damned car? How about you use it?”
“Oh, do that for me, please,” the waitress begged.
And upon those requests, Carl Griffin, a man who never declined a moment to show off, nodded his head, and he accelerated to pass Jeffery’s Pontiac. However, the other driver had too much pride to be performed, particularly by a car that he had always called a “glorified rice burner”. Cheered on by his own passenger, Jeffery also increased his speed to prevent being passed. Consequently, a race for bragging rights had commenced in earnest at speeds over seventy miles per hour and beyond.
“What the fuck!” Craig exclaimed.
Even Paul was concerned. With a wide bayou on one side –along with trees, ditches, and structures on the other—this was not the type of road on which to be racing. “Yo, man…”
“Relax, you pussies!” Big C insisted, as he pushed his car to its limits. “I got this!”
Unfortunately, that statement could not have proven itself more false in the seconds that followed. There was deafening silence inside of both speeding cars, when the headlights of an oncoming vehicle—a Ford truck driven by a thirty-one-year-old father on his way to work—came around the bend. Rather than hitting the brakes, Carl sped up, hoping to put enough distance between himself and Jeffery, in order to squeeze through. But there was neither enough time nor space. Instead, he would have to try something even more risky. Carl hoped that he could pass the northbound truck to its right, by maneuvering to the paved shoulder. With no time to reconsider such a foolish decision, he cut his steering wheel quickly, but even this did not work. He grazed the truck’s right side, causing his own car to spin into a telephone pole before landing in a ditch. At the same time, the driver of the truck also lost control, and his vehicle was transformed into a hurdling projectile that collided with the smaller Pontiac before flipping several times.
“Aw…aw, fuck,” Paul Griffin moaned. His head was throbbing, and he could not stop choking on whatever was in the air.
When Paul opened his eyes, the only thing that he saw was a smoky, white haze. The car’s airbags, he thought—the car’s airbags did this. At first, the young man did not know that for certain, simply because everything had happened so quickly, but as his vision began to clear, he could tell that things were bad, really bad.
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