Open Mic Night at Fat Fish Pub
Chad Simpson

11:37 p.m.

Tom Mitchell is having a birthday party in back, with wrapped presents and cake and three tables topped with empty domestic bottles, their labels curling at the corners.

Pete Shively is holding an unlit Marlboro Light between two fingers.

Zachary Goff is mildly threatening Bill Anders with a pool cue, then lining up a nine-ball shot.

11:38 p.m.

Cletus Finn has exceeded his allotted ten minutes on stage, but no one says anything. He plays a couple open mics each week at bars around Galesburg, standing over a keyboard but occasionally breaking out an accordion, a trombone. He usually riffs upbeat stuff, but tonight the notes are warping, getting dark.

Greg Masters, in his bad teeth and dingy button-down shirt with a stiff collar, buys everyone sitting at the bar a round.

When Sam Dietz declines, despite his empty scotch glass, despite being ready for another, Greg's eyes flash hard and mean in his direction.

11:44 p.m.

At a nearby table, Lynn Murphy counts the bills in her purse. She has enough for another vodka tonic but wants to see if she can leave right now, without drinking it. She is wondering, for probably the third or fourth or five hundredth time at what point a person becomes dependent on the stuff. Does a woman somehow suddenly know when she's become an alcoholic, like a flipped switch, artificial light filling a room that moments before had been only dark?

11:51 p.m.

Up on stage, Cletus Finn begins to dissipate like smoke and drift toward a vent in the tin ceiling. The jukebox loads a Sheryl Crow song sung in Spanish.

11:52 p.m.

Pete Shively begins to remember a fairly excellent moment from middle school.

Sam Dietz tries to forget completely about the past three hours. The past six months, two years. Really, he would can it all, just about everything that has ever happened to him, if he could. He would wipe his slate clean.

Lynn Murphy, bellied up with her empty glass and money for another drink in hand, tries not to look at her reflection in the mirror over the bar.

Zachary Goff orders a shot and a beer. Just like that, "A shot and a beer." Like the place only carries one type of each. Like he is living in a different century.

Cletus Finn is reanimated near the video poker machine and begins building a castle out of cocktail straws.

Tom Mitchell imagines beer bottles that do not look at all like beer bottles.

11:53 p.m.

Shelley Masters thinks about her kids. She is out on a date with Greg, her ex, who has just bought a second round of drinks for everyone sitting at the bar. For the past couple hours, Shelley has been a little afraid of Greg's smile, how it seems to bear the wrong emotions. She thinks he might intend to kill her dead before the night is over.

He isn't the kind of guy who has money to blow on drinks for strangers, not at all.

Her Tom Collins glass sweats into her fingers.

Her kids, Gail and Ricky, they are probably in bed right now. She closes her eyes, imagining them tucked in and dreaming sweet, untroubled dreams. She imagines standing with the door cracked, looking in on them, and then snow falling, blanketing their eyelashes, the ruddy parts of their cheeks. She imagines snow filling the room completely.

When she opens her eyes, hardly able to breathe, her ex is lip-synching the words to the Spanish Sheryl Crow song. He gestures toward the ceiling with his half-full glass and mouths, staring right at her, Todo lo que quiero hacer.

The song grows louder. It is all she can hear. It is all she can think.

Chad Simpson's debut collection of stories, TELL EVERYONE I SAID HI, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. It is just out from the University of Iowa Press.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Eric Havir.

Read more of CS' work in the archive.

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