Jus Ssay the Word

by Ryan Pollard

      It was midevening when the two friends ordered food at the bar. Charlie, the smaller one, glanced around the place. “Pretty dead todight, huh?”
      The bigger one, Jeremy, grasped his mug of Bud Light like a barbell, his thick fingers wedged under the handle as though locked in place. He sipped through the flimsy head slowly. “Nah, it’ll pick up soon. Doesn’t usually get jumpin’ till later anyhow.”
      They glanced down at their phones and scrolled and tapped intermittently while commenting on the ball games playing on the video wall overhead. “How do’ you know dat bartedduh?” Charlie asked.
      “He used to work at Brewski’s. He’ll hook us up tonight. Didn’t even put these ones on my tab.” “Nicce.”
      Jeremy was a regular at several bars in the neighborhood, as known and liked by the barkeeps for his genial drunkenness and generous tipping as he was by the bouncers for keeping a watch on the young bucks prone to trouble and helping them knock heads if and when the time came. He and Charlie ate buffalo wings and shared a heaping plate of nachos. They chatted sporadically with the torpor of a married couple on a compulsory date night, sustained more by long ties and old joy than anything fresh or flourishing. Mostly they looked at nothing in particular or stared disinterestedly at their phones. After a while, two other men also in their late twenties crossed the room and joined them. One took a chair next to Jeremy. He was shortish and still sturdily built, but likely headed toward dumpiness in a few years. The other, tall and alert with the sure stride of a once-great former athlete, remained standing.
      “How you guys doin’?” the newcomers asked while scanning the night’s prospects. A group of young women had just filled a couple booths along the wall by the pool tables. The tall one cast a long look their way and then turned to point them out to his companions. “So who’s the slow gazelle tonight, boys?” They chuckled among themselves.
      “I call Big Bertha on the end in the white dress,” Jeremy said. “Looks like a fuckin’ sausage case, huh?”
      The friends joked and drank beers as they teased each other about past nights rife with the drunken exploits of youth. Charlie joined in the laddish insults and jokes compulsorily, nursing his beer as the night progressed and the others moved on to mixed drinks. He never had more than two when he went out with his friends, and they never ragged him about it. If nothing else, it made for a dependable designated driver at the end of the night if things happened to go that way. After half an hour or so, Jeremy and the other two got up to stroll the grounds. They played some pool and cornhole, ventured over to the girls in the booths they’d seen earlier and talked to others besides, and returned to orbit the bar now and then and chat with Charlie, who usually remained seated once he found a spot he liked.
      A man a little older than most of the Saturday night crowd sat next to Charlie and started a conversation after getting his drink.
      “Like that shirt,” his chin raised in indication. “That show’s hilarious.”
      Charlie was wearing a Rick and Morty t-shirt he’d had for several years. People often commented on it. “Ssankss. Can’t wait fo-uh the new sseasod to sstart.”
      An inadvertent and unsure smile crept up the man’s face. His eyes stayed a moment. But in the end, tact carried the day. “New season? I still haven’t seen the last one.”
      “It’ss pretty good,” Charlie replied loudly, then apologized, “Ssorry, didn’t mead to sshout that.”
      They talked for a while. Charlie noticed quickly—likely before the man did, if he noticed at all—that the man’s tone acquired a faint solicitude and his head started tilting slightly to the side while they conversed. His body leaned in a tad now as though receiving a secret. Finally, Charlie took pity on the stranger and threw him a bone. “Doad worry, I’m nah drunk. I juss have a ccerebelluh coddition.” He tapped his finger just below his skull in the back. “Sso my sspeech is a little ssloppy, and it cad get too loud or ssoft.”
      “Oh,” the man said, benignant as could be. “That’s ok, man, no problem. Take your time.”
      Charlie gave him the compendious explanation, just the essentials: not worth going much beyond that at a bar, he’d found. He explained yet again what ataxia meant, what the cerebellum does, that his faculties were all there and intact despite how he sounded. He could teach a goddamn class on it by now, he joked. “The ssing is, I can’t drink much because it hitss that part of the brain firsst. That’ss why people sstart talkin funny aftuh they’ve had a few, sstart to lose thei-uh balancce ‘n all dat.”
      They talked some more about clever TV shows they both enjoyed until the man finished his drink and started to rise. Charlie’s big friend Jeremy had returned from his rounds by then and watched the man closely as he took his leave. Once he was gone, Jeremy sat in the empty seat, gripping a Jack and Coke. “That guy all right?”
      Charlie nodded. “He was cool.”
      “Hmm,” Jeremy said, following the man across the room.

      Charlie cringed a trace inside. He and Jeremy went all the way back to grade school. They knew each other as well as brothers. Charlie was and had been for a while the smart and sensible one, Jeremy the brawler and partier. Jeremy had stepped in for Charlie countless times, a twitch of his girthy neck or hand placed with menacing nonchalance on someone’s shoulder usually enough to set them straight. Charlie had accepted the aid, maybe depended on it at first, when they were kids, but the arrangement began to chafe years ago, around the time he noticed irritation replace gratitude when his parents spoke to his teachers for him about his condition.
      But by now he knew that Jeremy would never change and that he, Charlie, would never ask him to. Even now, despite himself, Charlie still found an easy reassurance in the sight of his brawny friend walking confidently across a room in his tight-fitting black leather coat, saying secretly to himself as well as to the onlookers in his mind who weren’t really there (but in fact had always been): “He’s with me.”
      Their other two friends soon rejoined them, now properly drunk and boisterous. “Those girls wanna after-party at their house later on,” relayed the tall one. “They said they got a three-foot bong and a hot tub.” The four of them, collectively, smiled.
      “Remember that bong you guys had when you lived with Russ?” the short one said to Charlie and Jeremy.
      “Yeah, good old Kneel,” Jeremy reminisced. “Charlie was the only one who could clear it back then.” He slapped Charlie on the back, maybe harder than he’d intended, and sent him jerking forward in his chair. All three reached out instinctively to catch and right him.
      “Ssankss, assshole.” Charlie grinned at Jeremy.

      The group of friends milled around the bar with Charlie’s seat more or less the fulcrum.
      A few of the girls they’d met by the pool tables came over, followed by some acquaintances from high school, and there was a clamorous eruption of salutations and one-armed pound hugs. After greeting and catching up with everyone, Charlie turned toward the bar and started a trivia game on his phone, glancing up periodically at the question screen perched above the Jägermeister tap machine. A young man a couple seats down at the end of the bar was playing, too. He was obviously strung-out, wearing long, torn jean shorts frayed below the knees and a baja hoodie with several black marks, either grease or burns, on one of the sleeves. There were divots in his sallow cheeks as he clenched and unclenched his jaw repeatedly, staring in Charlie’s direction. “Are you Rick C-137 or Monkey Love?” the man asked, looking up at the screen.
      “The firss wud,” Charlie said. “Rick.”
      “You’re kickin’ my ass, man.”
      They exchanged small talk while playing until the man, apparently piqued, moved to a seat nearer to Charlie. He had a subdued agitation about him that Charlie couldn’t quite define yet recognized he didn’t like. He told Charlie, “You’re really good at trivia, you know that? You should go on fuckin’ Jeopardy. Seriously!”
      Charlie said he’d taken the online test a couple times but never made it any further.
      “Well, if you can get all these answers drunk, then jeesh—you’d win it all sober!”
      Charlie sighed inwardly, weighing if it was worth the effort this time. Experience had taught him to pick his battles, and he tried to, but pride usually tilted the calculus away from silence. “I’m nah drunk. Thiss is mah ssecund beer tonigh’. I juss have thiss brain ting, it makess me talk different.”
      “What, are you some kind of, what’s it called… a savant or somethin’? Like fuckin’ Rain Man? Damn, boy, that’s cool as shit! I heard sometimes retarded people like that can be, like, badass craftsmen or great at the piano or some shit.”
      “No, I—”
      “So are you, like, really good at math, too?” the man went on. “Maybe you could do my taxes, man!” He shook Charlie by the arm.
      Jeremy, several feet away in the group, shifted his gaze just then and Charlie caught his friend’s eyes and the silent question. Charlie shook his head slowly in response and smirked as if to say don’t worry, it’s nothing, waving Jeremy off with a brisk motion of his hand.
      As the young man continued on with his misconceived comments and assumptions, Charlie decided it was a lost cause—or perhaps he just didn’t have it in him right then—so he began playing along for his own amusement, enjoying the banal absurdity of it. He went further than usual, concocting a story about working for the government on top secret surveillance programs that spy on us all through smart devices. Finally, when the fun wore off, he told the man he had to go to the bathroom and headed in that direction.
      The man watched his new buddy walk carefully with wide-set feet through the crowd, then smiled and shook his head as though he’d just met a crazy old guy by the train tracks or some other farcical character he’d likely tell his friends about later.

      Nearing the bathrooms at the far wall, Charlie heard a bright, familiar voice call his name. He looked for the source and soon found it. “Charlie!” repeated a sporty brunette approaching with an affectionate smile. “How’ve you been?”
      Lauren opened her arms and they hugged. She had been Charlie’s close friend and confidante for the better part of high school. He’d carried a secret flame for her all the while and, although they saw each other less and less as the years passed, it still stung sweetly to see her whenever their paths crossed. As with previous encounters, they calculated the interim since their last meeting and then began the business of catching up. He told her he was finishing his doc program for social work and Lauren, with rather less zeal, described her job doing R&D at a roofing and insulation company. Knowing the same people from a shared adolescence, they found they’d heard the same stories of this or that one and filled each other in on the rest.
      “God, most of us are still here, I guess,” Lauren concluded. “Kinda sad, huh? This damn city’s like a vortex.” She regarded Charlie’s crowd with interest. “Hey, is that Sean and Tim? I’ll have to go say hi before we leave.” She stared at the group for a moment and then her face dimmed a bit. She turned to Charlie with a wry look. “Still hanging out with Jeremy, huh?”
      “Yeah, mosstly from habi’,” Charlie conceded sheepishly, knowing their history.
      “Well, maybe I’ll wait till he leaves before I say hi to the others. I don’t feel like dealin’ with his drunk ass tonight.”
      “Can’ ssay I blame you. Tha’ usually ens up being my job an’way.”
      Lauren’s laugh held a scintilla of sympathy, or possibly concern. “I never could figure out how you two were such good friends,” she pronounced. She nodded toward her table. “But anyway, I’m here with some work friends and should get back so I’ll let you go take a piss. We can talk more later.” They hugged again and parted.
      When Charlie returned from the restroom, he noticed that part of his group had coalesced into a sort of half-circle around someone he couldn’t see until he reached the bar.
      “Charlie, c’mere!” Jeremy’s voice muscled over the music and general buzz. Charlie’s trivia partner was still seated, but now Jeremy stood slightly behind him, his forearm resting vertically down the man’s back with his hand draped over his thin shoulder, fingers tapping his collarbone. “So, Derek here has something he wants to say.”
      Derek glanced at Charlie, then down at his feet. “Well, ya know, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, man.”
      “Tell him what you just told us, bro.” Jeremy’s tone, minacious without being blatant, landed as it always did.
      “Yeah… sorry if I came across as disrespectful or anything.” He squirmed like a guilty child. “I was just tryin’ to be funny.”
      “Yeah, real funny,” said Jeremy.
      Charlie stood there, avenged and diminished. He knew the hole he wanted to retreat into was far deeper and darker than anything Derek might be wishing for at the moment. He told him to forget about it, no harm done, hoping he’d leave quickly so at least one of them could disappear. Instead, Jeremy simply turned Derek’s chair around, patted him firmly on the back, and they all returned to their revels, moving on from the exchange.
      They continued drinking—all except Charlie, who’d reached his limit—and no one noticed half an hour later when Derek slunk away. By then Jeremy and the rest were in top form, hitting on the girls full-steam and trying to firm up plans for later. Lauren hadn’t come over, and Charlie had lost sight of her. Jeremy approached Charlie’s chair, glassy-eyed and swaying slightly. His hand crashed onto the back of Charlie’s neck as he clinked his drink into Charlie’s glass of water almost hard enough to break it.
      “C’mere, brotha,” he leaned in. “Ya know I gotcher back, right? Inny time, inny place, ya know dat.”
      “Yeah,” Charlie said with a rueful grin. “Of coursse.”
      “No, no, no, man, I mean it!” Jeremy yelled over the din, squeezing his friend’s neck. “Sherioussly. I ‘on’t ev’n care, brotha. Been like dat ssince all the way back. I’ll fuck ‘em up, bro, you jus ssay the word. Jus ssay the word, ‘k?”