by Graeme Mullen
Last call was closing in and after many hours of sitting in the same spot I could no longer tell where my body ended and the bar began. The funk of the place was all up in my lungs, drenched in malevolence sloughed off with the sweat of the patrons. They had started to turn on me again, and the barstool beneath me was starting to feel like a stinger growing out of my ass. A prop stinger, I guess, with the venom switched out for saline. I say that because it was, and is, strictly prohibited to actually kill anyone in my line of work.
The Protocol Manual, in its infinite wisdom, gives a hard out at seventy-two hours. My assignment, dubbed the Handlebarbarian by some joker up at Switchboard, had already clocked seventy-one. A new District record that I had no desire to hold.
He was said to be the most violent man in America. Twin bloodlines tracing back to Ghengis Khan and Jesse James, snaked together like a pair of vipers on a biker tattoo. A tattoo that he himself possessed, along with many others. Heartland folklore, and maritime crests, and a love letter to a woman who’d ended up slapping down a restraining order. The ink on the Handlebarbarian could’ve fueled a Sunday paper route.
He was a high practitioner in the art of the bar fight. At the age of nine, he’d taken on his own father in a brawl and would’ve won if the old man hadn’t managed to snatch up a cast iron spittoon for the last blow. He’d been fighting the same fight ever since, thousands of times over, without a single loss.
His only companion was a potbellied pig that was more vicious than any pit bull. He would buy the pig shots of Wild Turkey at the bar and it would go feral and gnash at the other patrons. Its teeth were weaponized beyond those of any farmyard pig; the Handlebarbarian sharpened them daily with a toenail file.
Most of the women of the town were too afraid to go to bed with him, and those who had were missing chunks of earlobe and had ugly marks up and down their thighs. It was said that the marks were burns from his moustache, which had the grit of steel wool and would glow hotter than a space heater when he was going to town on a fresh slab of pussy.
Three nights in another man’s bar and you can come to know a great deal about him. Usually, all of it will be lies.
The first night, the bartender had said my face was too green and that a green face was liable to run into trouble in an establishment such as this. He said he couldn’t tell if I was a cactus or a sapling and he asked me to produce identification, even though I was only drinking water. I juggled his paring knife up from the limes and lopped off the top third of an index finger to count the rings. There were two hundred and fifty, give or take a few. More than I’d expected, if I’m being honest. The bartender and the bikers and the kamikaze alcoholics thought it was a fantastic trick and I was straight away taken in as one of their own. When they asked if I was a touring magician, I told them:
“No no, my friends, I’m just a simple Garbageman making my rounds.”
They thought it was the most hilarious joke they’d ever heard and started sliding drinks down the bar. I’d toast along and then empty the glasses into the interdimensional pockets of my field coat when they were distracted with women or pool cues.
Night two had been pretty much status quo. I’d sit on the barstool tending to the onslaught of goodwill booze and think of the Janitors mopping up shots of Jagermeister from the base of the portal and that really put things in perspective. Being a Garbageman is not a glorious lot in life, but it beats the hell out of being a Janitor.
On this, the third night, my novelty was starting to dry up, and the conveyor line of Jagermeister along with it. The bartender was making hints that it was time I stepped up from water chasers and into harder, more revenue-friendly territory. One of the hints was a thumbtack nestled in my ice cubes.
I was just considering another act of dismemberment with the thumbtack to buy myself some time when the music started to skip and the clack of the pool balls went mute. All eyes turned to the jukebox, where a fat man was being brained against the disc selection button. A potbellied pig tore away at the cuffs of his jeans, choking down swaths of Wrangler and hocking them back up onto the shoes of the spectators.
“It was only a joke,” the fat man said, in between the breakfast cereal noises his face was making, “I didn’t touch him. I swear. I-swear-I-swear-I-swear!”
The man doing the braining, well, do I need to spell it out? The moustache would’ve made a circus strongman blush.
He worked through his vendetta without encouragement and without interruption. When he was done, the fat man’s compatriots assembled into a kind of pit crew and hoisted him up off the axle of defeat, if you could call it that, and tossed him out into the parking lot. The window of the jukebox was splattered with a Rorschach pattern that looked to me like a bellows. To you, it may have looked like the Angel of Death, or the Arc de Triomphe, or something else entirely.
The Handlebarbarian’s hunger for bloodshed was equaled only by his thirst for whisky. He took his Wild Turkey with a spurt of gasoline that the bartender kept in a tin behind the register. The pig took his neat.
He nursed each shot with surprising tenderness. The points of his moustache relaxed and uncoiled with each fresh mouthful. He was as devoted to the task of drinking as he had been to the braining, and paid no one around him any mind, least of all me. Although, as it happened, I was seated one slot away from his regular barstool, while all the other patrons had chosen to give him a wide berth in the wake of the jukebox incident.
I checked my field clock, which I’d set to a twenty-four-hour schedule at the start of my window, and figured I didn’t have long before I was looking at a pile of paperwork for having missed a deadline. The Protocol Manual has this to say about the last thirty minutes of the rounds:
Direct intervention in the termination of an assignment is prohibited. However, in instances where said assignment appears unlikely to make the pickup window, a Garbageman may expedite the proceedings according to his/her own discretion and good judgment.
The Protocol Manual is not known for its transparency in the finer points of pickup, and the deaths never came how you expected anyway. The rock star felled by the sleeping bus driver. The carnival barker blown to smithereens by a freak gas line explosion. The skydiver suicided with pills. Trying to hurry things along in a world that possessed infinite machinery to end a human life was pointless.
Still, I figured a little reconnaissance couldn’t hurt, so I started in with some small talk.
“I’m not looking for a confrontation,” I said, “and by the way, that is a very distinguished moustache.”
“Thanks, greenface,” he said, stroking its black arches, “we’ve been through a lot together.”
“I can see by your tattoos that you’ve had a lot of life experiences.”
“I’ve never even left the county.”
“Have you ever killed anyone in the name of love?”
“Killed? No. Least of all for love. It doesn’t work like that.”
“You almost killed that man at the jukebox.”
“The portly man.”
“Let me tell you how that fat asshole spent his afternoon. He felt up a six-year-old in the woods and left the kid tied to a tree. This after—I shit you not—I took his balls off with a bowie knife last winter. But I guess it’s hard to break your habits.”
He showed me the bowie knife, which was notched and dull and did not look particularly apt for performing impromptu genital surgery.
“The tree was a Douglas fir. Do you know what kind of fucked up Christmases that kid is going to have?”
“The molester’s name is Nestor?”
“I don’t know what his real name is.”
“We call you the Handlebarbarian.”
“Ha! I like that. Who’s we?”
I told him about my job and explained that some souls are too wild to be considered biodegradable by the cosmos, and that he should take that as a compliment.
“Okay,” he said, “but I get to live if I beat you in a game of wits.”
“You’ve misunderstood,” I said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Either way,” he said, “I’m sure this calls for a drinking contest.”
The Handlebarbarian must have had the Triple Diamond American Express equivalent of a bar tab, because the drinks kept flowing without a single dollar changing hands. His eyes were like gun sights on me for the whole tournament, and I didn’t once risk an interdimensional pocket dump.
We put down every drop of whisky in the bar, from the top shelf down to the well. I was sure his liver would combust under the strain. To my surprise, when he rose up from the barstool, he was steady on his feet. He wanted to go out back to sing.
The pig warmed up to me in the alley, I think because we were all thoroughly soused. He nuzzled his snout up against my leg and made pig noises that seemed to signify an earnest desire for friendship. The Handlebarbarian opened up with a fine baritone and sang country western ballads to his lover. A Siren by name of Annabelle, the same woman who’d deemed a court order necessary to bar his advances. She was extremely beautiful, by his account.
“Like a silver coyote with a snatch spun from gold,” was how he described her.
My vision was out of whack and the field clock had stopped making sense by the time Annabelle showed up. It was as if she’d been drawn by his singing, not in a romantic way, but in the way a barracuda smells the pain of spilt blood in a lagoon. She had her own bottle of something or other, but rather than sharing it with us she split the contents with the hood of a Chevrolet and came back up with a weapon to wave in our faces.
“This man is a hero,” is what I said. “He castrated a child molester. What, if not that, is worthy of your love?”
“You’re some kind of psycho-fag,” she said, and gashed a red line right over my kidney.
The Handlebarbarian mistook her violence for passion and spread his arms wide and Christed out for an embrace. She plugged several holes from him, the last one a game ender, and ran off into the night.
The Handlebarbarian bled out with the standard croaks and gurgles and the pig began to cry. I leaned down and gave a pull at the moustache, which came away like it wanted to, like it had a Velcro backing designed for just such a purpose. I draped my field issue IDM coat over the rest of him and whisked the body away to a plane that was better suited for processing singular individuals such as himself.
The Review Board ran laps around my reputation. My union-appointed Barrister managed to talk down the charges of chronological negligence, but in the end they nailed me for drinking on the job. There were questions about the skinned upper lip, but it’s always a tough case to prove the existence of a negative, even with a catchy moustache-implying-nickname in evidence. They cut me six months severance without so much as a covered dentist trip and sent me on my way.
Back on the ground, I stitched a zipper over my bottle gash and pulled out a kidney once a month to finance airfares. I toured the great cities, but found them to be over-advertised and lacking in intensity. I was looking for some kind of sine wave, I suppose, but found only a ripple here and there to occupy my mind. I thought about taking on a woman from time to time, but I could never justify the pitfalls. In the end, I settled in that same town and posted up at the bar of the Handlebarbarian. The local kidney peddlers fronted my rounds of Wild Turkey, and my offering of the taxidermied moustache paved a path of goodwill that would’ve lasted a hundred retirements.
The bartender hung the moustache up above the sign that reads “NO HAIR GEL.” When the locals get rowdy, it glows red and pumps heat into the fight. On calmer evenings, when a pair of stray lovebirds set to canoodling around a single-strawed cocktail, it droops down limp and reverent. On all nights, his presence is felt and appreciated by all the patrons of the bar.
I take comfort in that and drink my whisky and tend to his pig, who has become a close friend in these trying days. Pigs are highly-developed animals. Smarter than dogs, I’ve heard, and twice as loyal. I take comfort in that, too.
Graeme Mullen recently moved from Los Angeles to San Marcos, Texas, to pursue an MFA in Fiction Writing. Try as he might, he has never been able to grow a convincing moustache.