Henrietta’s—the big red brick building at the corner of Charles and Main--had become a demilitarized zone. On any given Friday night, the college kids crowded around the bar, the townies had their tables, the hippies passed a hookah around their bohemian corner, the wannabe bikers crowded the pool tables. All of these different types coexisted under the common interests of 10 cent chicken wings after 10 p.m. and cheap draught beers; a shared disdain for the old time country western music piped over the sound system.
A clatter disturbed the normal Friday night din, as one of the tall, heavy wooden tables flipped, shattering beer steins on the ground. The pair of bouncers faced a guy, early-twenties, deep stubble across his face, tight black t-shirt. They set up their wall of humanity to block him off from another guy, around the same age, sandy blond hair, who he insisted had provoked him. All of 30 seconds passed before they told him to scram.
“Come on, we should go.” A friend put hand on Tyler’s shoulder.
“Listen to your buddy,” the bouncer on the left said, a bald, fat guy with weight lifter shoulders.
“Do you have any idea who I am?”
That same bouncer offered the requisite shrug.
Tyler pointed a finger in the bouncer’s face and grinned. “You will tomorrow morning. Hope you’re ready to find another job.”
Outside, it was humid enough that a guy couldn’t breathe without sweating. The smell of cigarette smoke and a hint of mesquite from somewhere down the road permeated the air.
It wasn’t until they had reached the parking lot that Classic dared speak to Tyler again. “What was all that about? That you ‘do you know who I am’ stuff?”
“The dickhead didn’t know who I was.”
“So I could be owner’s son for all he knows, or the sheriff’s nephew, or I could be fucking the mayor. Point is, now he’s got to worry about that the rest of the night.”
Classic chuckled awkwardly. Everything about him was awkward, from his mop of brown hair, to his pallid skin, to his oversized, bright green hockey jersey, the likes of which Tyler reckoned no one with any sense would be caught wearing unless he were actually playing hockey.
Maybe Tyler was distracted with the jersey, or the confrontation at the bar, but whatever the case, he didn’t see Lizzie coming. She stopped right in his path and crossed her arms so he had no choice but stop, if just for a second.
Tyler recalled the first time he had seen Lizzie, about a year before. Short shorts, short girl. She had reddish-brown hair, scattershot freckles against tan skin from her job as a lifeguard, and small, vaguely Asian eyes. He initiated the conversation that night, leaning over her at the bar in such a way he could flex his triceps. She had seemed cool that night.
He made a move to step around her but she slid to the side to cut him off.
“What’s going on, Lizzie?”
“You haven’t returned my calls.”
“After people break up, they don’t have to return each other’s calls. In fact, it’s a little weird for you to call to begin with.”
“Truth or dare, Tyler?”
“I don’t have time for this tonight.”
Classic elbowed him in the ribs. “You know the rules. The game’s on, anytime, anyplace. You can’t pass.”
The game had dominated the lives of everyone in their immediate social circle for the last year, its play more ubiquitous, its rules more acute with each passing month. Lizzie tilted her head and flashed the smile that, in better days, Tyler found sexy as hell.
“I dare you to go back in there and have a drink with me. Just the two of us, so we can talk about some things.”
“I’m going to refer to the rule book again,” Tyler said. “Cameron, if you would?”
Cameron spread his hands open in front of his face, to look as though he were reading the fine print of a book. “A player reserves the right to reject a dare in the case that it will result in a probable arrest.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lizzie asked.
“It means I already got kicked out. Have a good night, sweetheart.” Tyler side stepped her and used an old football juke and spin to get ahead of her and back on the path his Thunderbird.
“Fuck it, Tyler. We need to talk.”
“I’m changing the dare. Tomorrow night. Stillwater’s. Eight o’clock.”
The door to the Thunderbird groaned on opening. Tyler kept forgetting to grease the hinges. He reached across to the passenger to side to unlock the door for Classic.
“Do you hear me, Tyler? Tomorrow—”
“Eight. Stillwater’s. I’ll think about it.” He slammed the door shut and revved the old engine. Lizzie jumped to get out of the way as he fired the car into reverse and covered her with dust from the gravel lot.
Tyler had given Classic his nickname back in high school. The guy would say the goofiest shit, and Tyler had declared every sentence he uttered to be “Classic.” The name stuck, but as the years went by, Classic’s manner of speech lost its charm. Particularly, when the guy got fixated on a topic, Tyler felt as though he could very easily ram Classic’s head through some drywall.
“Lizzie is fucking hot, dude.” Classic batted the orange rubber ball from side to side with his hockey stick. “I don’t know why you’d split on her.”
Tyler sat behind the counter staring at the sheet of paper in front of him. That watermarked sheet of paper had cost two dollars in and of itself, ten bucks more for the design and the color print job. If it worked, that sheet of paper would make him three hundred dollars, cash, before the day was done. “I told you. She got weird.”
“I’d be all right with Lizzie getting a little freaky on me.” Classic started in with the pelvic thrusts, extending the hockey stick forward. “You know, a little freaky on my genitalia.”
When Tyler bought The Coach’s Corner sports memorabilia shop, it seemed like a dream come true. At any given moment, he could surround himself with classic baseball cards, signed footballs, game-used basketball jerseys—all in the name of business. And he’d have sports fans in and out to shoot the shit all day, reliving the game from the night before while they bought a few packs of trading cards from whatever sport was in season and opened them on the spot. Once the business took off he’d get a big screen plasma TV for the store and show all the big games there. The thing would probably pay for itself.
The problem was, when Tyler bought Coach’s Corner, no one told him about the way in which the economy had affected sports memorabilia. No one told him that when a working stiff had to choose between a pack of baseball cards and a pack of cigarettes, he’d choose his Old Golds every time. Forget about the plasma. Covering the rent on the shitty little building proved hard enough. Never mind that the shit-colored carpet ought to have been replaced long before he bought the place, and Tyler could swear those big fluorescent lights on the ceiling emitted toxic radiation.
Tyler had had to start buying all of these stupid trading cards with elves and wizards. The nerd crowd out-bought the sports fans three to one.
Classic tapped the rubber ball forward, slow and steady. It rolled right through the little slot at the bottom of the cardboard display of a goalie. Tyler set it up so customers could pay a dollar to take a shot. If they scored, they were rewarded with a randomized pack of 20 hockey cards (full of no-names, cards were, cumulatively, valued at approximately a dollar). If they missed—well, they were welcome to play as many times they liked.
“Want to speed up that slap shot, Gretzky?” Tyler cracked his knuckles. He had assigned Classic the task of shooting at the goal himself whenever customers were around to show how fun and easy the game was. With those granny shots, the game didn’t look fun at all. Hell, it didn’t even look like a game.
“If I shoot it too hard I’m going to miss.”
“You’ve got to make it look easy.”
“I’ve got to practice so I can make it look easy. I shoot slow when no one’s around so I can shoot it fast when we do have people here.” Classic leaned behind the display, and knocked the ball back through the slot, out into the open. “So what do you mean Lizzie got weird?”
“She just got clingy and stuff. I could see the signs, she was going to be more of a hassle than she was worth.”
Classic batted the ball back and forth, working his way back down the center of the store. That was one of the design flaws of the game—the shop was small enough, just one aisle, such that anyone playing the game couldn’t help but interfere with anyone actually trying to shop. “I don’t think I’d mind a girl like Lizzie getting clingy. Would give you the upper hand, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m always in charge.” Tyler fingered the edges of that sheet of paper. He wondered if she should have had it laminated.
“So are you going to Stillwater’s?”
“If I’m going, you’re coming with.” Tyler sat up straighter, looking at his certificate of
authenticity from a little more distance. “You’re not gonna sit down with us, or nothing. I just need to you there to pull me out if I need it.”
“You think you’ll need it?”
The little bell over the door rang. As if on cue, Classic fired a slap shot at the cardboard goalie, hard and wild enough that the ball went airborne and ricocheted off the cardboard into the magazine rack.
The man at the door way had wavy grey hair, a grey moustache, and a gray blazer on to match. His chest swelled from underneath it with the build of a guy who had worked out his whole life.
“Would you like to take a shot, sir?” Classic reached out both arms, the hockey stick laying flat across his hands like he was offering up some ancient sword. “Only costs a dollar.”
“No thanks, Junior.” The man, Marty Fullerton headed straight for Tyler and extended his hand.
Tyler wiped his own palm against his jeans to get the sweat off before he met Marty’s. It was the same all-business handshake the old man offered him when they first met two months before, when he introduced himself on his first stop at the store and gave him his business card. “Mr. Fullerton, it’s a pleasure to see you.”
Men like Fullerton were a rare find in that town—a serious collector with particular tastes, established goals. He had let Tyler know in no uncertain terms he was looking for a mint condition, autographed Patrick Ewing rookie card, and that he would pay book value for it. He told Tyler to call the minute he so much as heard or saw of such a specimen, then left without taking a second look at the store. Tyler doubted he’d just stumble upon something as specific and hard to come by as what Fullerton was after, but he held onto the business card just the same. It couldn’t hurt to connect with a guy like that.
“You say you’ve found what I was looking for?” Fullerton planted his hands on his hips.
Tyler removed a brown paper bag from beneath the cash register and extricated the screw-down glass protective case. It was a 1986-1987 Fleer basketball card—the stuff of legend, the first major basketball card release in a five year span, such that it could lay claim to printing the first cards—the rookie cards—for a range of guys from Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan to Karl Malone, none of whom were actually rookies that season.
This particular card was different from all the rest, of course. Though the photo of young New York Knicks center, Patrick Ewing, remained in the confines of the ugly red, white and blue borders, the picture had another layer on top of it—the blue sharpie scrawling of the man’s name.
Fullerton held the case in his big right hand, turned it upside down, then held it at eye level, and looked at the edge of it. He held it up to the light, then held a hand over it, casting a shadow on the face of the card.
At last, Fullerton flopped the card down on the counter, not like a treasure he had sought for months or years, but a scrap of meat he would throw to his dog. “All right, kid, let’s see the certificate.”
Tyler had meant to have the sheet of paper waiting in a manila envelope to demonstrate he had taken care of it, to make the presentation look professional. He had forgotten to stow it away after the last hour of staring at the thing though, and found it lying, non-descript, behind the counter. He picked it up, and tried to smooth out a newly wrinkled edge in the same instant he handed it over.
Fullerton held the certificate of authenticity between a thumb and forefinger on each hand. “All-Star Sports. I never heard of them.”
Tyler had made up the name of the authenticating agency on the spot at the print shop. Fullerton seemed like the kind of guy who would have a collection of such certificates, so it seemed safer to invent, rather than counterfeiting a real company’s certificate. “I haven’t seen a lot of them either. They pass through every now and again, though.” He ran a thumb over his lips. “I saw one recently for a signed Donovan McNabb jersey. I think they’re a newer company, but, you know, on the rise.”
Fullerton exhaled long, hard, and audibly through his nostrils. “Never heard of them,” he repeated.
Tyler’s shifted to the wall behind Fullerton, a cardboard crate of sports posters with model copies hanging over it—Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Alex Rodriguez. Growing up, Tyler had covered his bedroom walls with posters like that. He couldn’t remember the last time he sold one from the store. How did kids decorate their rooms now? Probably just got the same posters from Wal-Mart. The bottom corner of the crate closest the doors was badly dented. At least one out of every three customers would trip over it on their way in the store. Tyler always meant to move it.
“Sorry kid, I’m gonna pass.”
Tyler cleared his throat. “Mr. Fullerton, I paid top dollar for this at a card show out in Elmira because I knew you were looking for it.”
“What did you pay?”
“Two hundred fifty dollars. And I’m willing to let it go to you for two seventy-five. Factor in gas to and from the show, the time it took me to find it, a little convenience charge—you won’t find a better deal.”
Fullerton placed the certificate on top of the card. “If it’s the real thing, you’ll find a good home for it. I’ve gotta feeling somebody defaced a perfectly good card there, though. I just hope it wasn’t you.” He pulled a pack of cigarettess from an inner pocket of blazer and deposited a smoke in his mouth.
The bell over the door rang again. Fullerton was gone.
Tyler turned the certificate in his hands and held it up to the light, inspecting the watermark. “Truth or dare, Classic?”
There wasn’t much point to even asking. Classic was always too chickenshit to take a dare, though, had he grown a pair in that moment, Tyler was determined to have him run outside and key Fullerton’s Mercedes.
“If you were me, would you meet Lizzie tonight?”
Classic leaned on the top of the hockey stick. “I think I would.”
Tyler slid the certificate into its envelope, slid the card back in the brown bag. There would be other customers. He would wait a couple weeks, then put the card on display, list it at a hundred bucks. Someone would bite. “We’re going.”
They headed out to Stillwater’s at 6:30—a full 90 minutes ahead of when Lizzie was supposed to come. “It’s like I always say—home field advantage is the greatest x-factor in a game,” Tyler explained. “Stillwater’s is neutral territory, but I get there early, make myself at home, and all of a sudden I’m in control.”
Classic gazed out the window, the glass rolled all the way down so the breeze plastered his face. The Thunderbird didn’t have air-conditioning.
While a place like Henrietta’s prided itself as a melting pot, Stillwater’s was decisively more of a yuppie joint. From the wall to wall glass exterior to the imitation marble floors, to the neon-backlit bottles over the bar, the place was desperate to be hip, just like its skinny jeans, blazer-sporting clientele.
Tyler made a point not of wearing an old Guns N Roses t-shirt and jeans that were worn at the knees, and didn’t put in any hair gel that night. He advised Classic to dress in kind—the best he could wrangle up was a plain white t-shirt and jeans with frayed cuffs.
Classic scooped up a mint from the maitre de’s station as they made their way in.
Tyler felt eyes turning to the two of them—mostly himself. All the while, he locked his eyes straight ahead. He spotted the redhead and the blond from 20 yards out and made no bones about pulling up a stool beside them at the bar. “Excuse me girls. If you don’t mind my asking, what are you drinking?”
The redhead looked him up and down through the lenses of a pair of glasses with thick black frames. “Vodka cran.”
“Bartender.” He brandished a fan of bills. “Four vodka cranberries.”
“We just started these.”
“Yeah.” Tyler watched the bartender pour a steady stream of cranberry juice down one side of a glass, a trickle of Smirnoff’s down the other. “But I have a feeling we’re all going to be here for a little while, so I figured I’d might as well get us started.”
The redhead smirked. He didn’t have her in the cooler yet, but she nipped at the edge of his hook. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t.” He reached out his hand. “Tyler.”
“I’m Willow. And this is Carol.”
Over the hour that followed, Willow and Carol revealed themselves as community college girls, friends from high school. Willow studied psychology and aimed to go on to a four year school the next fall. And Carol—well, Tyler lost interest in Carol after the first ten minutes, and after several not-so-subtle gestures, Classic got the hint to switch barstools and chat her up.
Tyler explained their identity for the night—members of a rock and roll band out of New York City. They had chosen the less than obvious path of moving to a small town, figuring they would save money on rent, and build a fan base over the Internet. Classic played drums, and Tyler sang, of course, but no, he’d be too embarrassed to sing there in the bar, without his band. And of course, they’d had no idea Stillwater’s was a fancier bar, or else they would have dressed more nicely. Tyler didn’t like to stand out.
It all went swimmingly until Tyler felt a pat on his shoulder. Lizzie didn’t acknowledge any of the others, and didn’t even speak a word to Tyler—just made her presence known. She asked the bartender for a Sprite, then walked over to a table across the way.
“Excuse me, girls. That’s Elizabeth—we’ve been working with her to get a gig at The Hog’s Haunch.”
“They get some pretty big acts there.” Willow played with one of the ends of her hair.
“Here’s hoping we’re next.” Tyler raised his glass to them all as he stood.
Lizzie sat with her hands gripping her seat, her thumbs beneath her butt. Her shoulders rose to a pair of peaks just below the bottoms of her ears. She sat that way when she was stressed or angry. Tyler had seen her in such a condition plenty.
“That girl with the glasses is pretty.” Lizzie sucked up Sprite through a little red straw. “You just meet her tonight?”
“It’s a long story.” Tyler lied.
Lizzie nodded. “Why have you been avoiding me?”
“We aren’t together anymore. I’m not avoiding you any more than any I avoid any other ex.”
Lizzie wore a black cocktail dress that left her shoulders bare. Her skin was spotted with freckles from the sun. She got a job as a bank teller last fall, but he supposed she probably still lifeguarded weekends to bring in a little extra cash. He had liked the way she looked in her black one-piece last summer. Had liked the way the young boys ogled her from the side of the pool, affirming her as an object of desire.
“Then why did you break up with me?”
“You can’t ask me that.”
“Because I already broke up with you. It’s done. And if I have to have the talk with you a month after, it’s like I’ve got to break up with you again, and I’ve got better ways to spend a Saturday night.”
“I think it’s because you’re scared of getting too serious with anyone.”
“You’re gonna psychoanalyze me now?”
“And maybe you’re scared of having to grow up. Scared because you don’t have a real job.”
“I own my own business.”
“And how much money has it made you so far?”
“Most businesses lose money over the first couple years.”
“I think you’re scared of being a man.”
“Are you done?”
“Truth or dare, Tyler?”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Truth or dare?” she repeated.
Tyler sighed and gulped down what was left of his vodka cran. “Dare.”
Lizzie rolled tongue around, over her teeth, so it bulged against her skin beneath the cover of closed lips. “I dare you to tell me why we started playing truth or dare.”
“Sounds more like a truth.” He swirled the half-melted ice cubes around in his glass. “All right, you started it.”
“And why is that?”
“How should I know?”
“Because I told you, and I know you remember.”
Across the bar, Willow directed traffic. The bartender laid out a row of three shot glasses, and she pointed at the liquor bottles behind him.
“You said I lied so much you couldn’t tell when to take me seriously.”
“And yet, since we started the game, I don’t remember a single time you haven’t picked dare.”
“You started the game.”
Lizzie took a deep breath and folded her hands on the table. She’d nibbled her nails down shorter than usual. Sometimes they’d bleed after she bit them that short. “What’s my usual drink?”
“Malibu and Sprite.”
“Good. And has it occurred to you why I left out the Malibu tonight?”
“Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“I think you know why. And I think it’s why you left me in the first place.”
“If you already have all the answers, then I’m not sure why I need to be here.”
Lizzie brushed her hair back behind her ears. Her hair was longer than it had been since they met, and when she moved it, Tyler could help thinking how much older she looked. More than a year older. Decades, a lifetime. She moved her hands down to her stomach and looked down. “It’s funny how you imagine something’s going to be a certain way. And then, when it comes, it’s nothing like that.”
Across the bar, they all sucked on lemon wedges. The girls giggled and Classic squinted his eyes. “Are we done here?”
“I really thought I loved you.”
He got up. Lizzie didn’t say another word he could here, didn’t get up to stop him. He made his way back to the bar, conscious of people watching him again. The Guns N Roses t-shirt didn’t feel so unique or cool anymore, though—just out of place. “I think it’s time we head home,” he said, upon his arrival.
Willow’s head flopped down on her hand, leaning against the bar. Her cheeks had turned pink. “Kind of an early night, don’t you think?”
“You misunderstood me.” Tyler glanced to his side. He almost looked as far back as Lizzie’s table, but pulled himself back to the moment.“I’m suggesting we all head back to my place. The night’s just getting started.”