Who puts Jesus’ mom in a bar? Bill Owens wondered. In some ways it comforted him.
It was nice to have Mary keeping an eye on him while he drank. He turned his back to the statue in the alcove above bottles of whiskey and tequila and staggered out of the 24th Street Bar into the first heavy rain of the season one drink shy of the third sheet and promptly stepped into an ankle deep puddle. He lifted his knee, shook water off his foot and mumbled, “Thanks, Mary” as he hustled across the street to the Bay Area Rapid Transit station hoping to make the last train. He knew he’d be cutting it close.
At the bottom of the first flight of steps he slipped and landed on his ass. Large stone sculptures hung on the walls above the entrance to the station. One of them looked like a pair giant Aztec eyes. Why can’t BART have 24/7 trains like New York, he wondered.
Bill had not yet signed up for Uber, an offence for which his tech firm co-workers chided him daily. He convinced himself that public transportation wasn’t so bad. It was safe, close to work, and with his recent purchase of a condo near the Embarcadero station, he could walk to the ballpark.
Safely down the second flight of stairs onto the platform, he saw waiting passengers and knew he had made it. He checked the destination monitor which scrolled, “BART police tip: report unattended packages and suspicious activity to a BART employee.”
Then Bill saw him. Tony Lombardo. His pasty skin, jet black hair, piercings, and tattoos stood out in the small crowd of late night revellers. There was no mistaking him. He still wore the same black motorcycle jacket with its excess of zippers. Same torn jeans and scuffed black boots half-laced, their thick tongues drooped over unused eyelets like a tired dog’s.
Lombardo stood near the edge of the platform and fired up a Marlboro in clear violation of the no smoking sign posted on the cement wall beyond the third rail. Those around him backed away in mock disdain. An indignant Lombardo sneered at their movement.
A little over a year ago Bill had picked up Lombardo’s then girlfriend, Katrina Gosford, at a Cinco de Mayo party she and Lombardo had thrown at their rented house on Alabama Street. They and Bill had a mutual friend which was how he ended up at the party. Katrina bumped into him coming out of the bathroom. A conversation ensued about their mutual friend and connection to Lombardo. Bill said something funny about one of Lombardo’s tattoos that made her laugh. That was the spark, the initial giggle. Tony never made her laugh, she confessed. He never even tried. They allowed animal attraction and several margaritas to take over which led, as such encounters often do, to the fateful, or was it fatal, kiss.
Digits were exchanged and about a week later they started up in earnest; first at Bill’s place on the edge of the Tenderloin, then back to hers and Lombardo’s when Tony was on the road with his punk metal band, The Torture Birds. This went on for a good four months before all three collided at the Elbo Room. Katrina hadn’t expected Lombardo to be back in town so soon.
Katrina had just returned from the ladies room as Bill swivelled on his barstool to face her. She nuzzled her pelvis up to Bill’s kneecap, semi-straddled it and applied gentle pressure. Her soft grinding caused a stirring between Bill’s legs. She searched his eyes for recognition of her intentions. He knew and was about to suggest they get out of there when Katrina backed off suddenly. An “Oh, fuck” look popped into her eyes. As he turned to see what had grabbed her attention, Lombardo’s fist smashed the side of his head knocking his porkpie hat into a crowd where someone nonchalantly toed it out of their way.
The punch swung Bill around 360° where he came eye to eye with Lombardo who grabbed a fist full of flannel. Without a word Lombardo hammered Bill in the nose. The whack shot Bill off his barstool onto the floor. Blood gushed out of his nose and covered his shirt amid screams of objections from Katrina.
Lombardo dragged Bill by the collar out of the bar and tossed him onto the sidewalk where a homeless man stood hunched over a puddle of puke wiping a string of chyme off his chin. Bill’s hat sailed out the door like a chunky Frisbee where it landed in the muck of the homeless guy’s relieved gut. That was the last time he had seen Lombardo.
Lombardo’s presence at the BART station unnerved Bill because he had run into Katrina recently between sets at a show at The Chapel. That’s when he had learned of the break-up.
Katrina was only there for the opening band she told Bill.
“I’m dating the bass player,” she said.
“Sticking with musicians I see,” Bill said.
“This one’s much nicer than Tony,” she said and played with a necklace she wore.
Bill watched her fingers as they tugged a heart fob up and down the necklace around her
exposed collarbone. He had often thought about that collarbone since the Elbo Room. “You know what I wonder sometimes?” she said.
“How it took me so long to realize Tony was such a motherfucker.”
A motherfucker indeed, Bill thought as he felt his crooked nose.
Nevertheless the comment surprised Bill. Katrina had never spoken about Lombardo like that. She rarely mentioned his name in their time together. Her comment made him think of one time after they had made love, and he noticed what he thought could’ve been bruises on her ribs. He didn’t ask her about them. He never said a word, not wanting to screw up what he had going with a woman like Katrina.
“I always wondered something too,” Bill offered. “Yeah, what did you wonder about, Bill?”
“You know, did he ever…”
“Cheat on me? Yeah, probably.”
“No, not that. After what he did to me at the Elbo Room, did he, you know…”
“Hurt me? Is that what you’re trying to say?” Did Tony ever hurt me?” Katrina groaned. “I could tell you some stories,” she said, but didn’t and never would.
The bass player walked up and slung his arm around Katrina. Introductions were made, and then they split to see a friend playing at Slims. Bill wondered what would’ve happened had he asked back when. Would they have stayed together? Could he have stood up to Lombardo? Why hadn’t he called her after the Elbo Room? It had been awkward seeing Katrina with another guy at the Chapel. But even more awkward was touching on what Lombardo might or might not have done to her and his inability to address it when it counted.
Tony Lombardo checked the destination monitor, two minutes, and then his eyes fell on Bill who now cursed himself for not having Uber. First thing tomorrow, he thought.
“Yo!” Lombardo hollered as he flicked his cigarette onto the tracks and lit another. “Bill Owens? You fuckin’ kiddin’ me. That really you?”
“Lombardo,” Bill said resigned to the fact that he could not avoid the impending conversation.
“Look at you. Goatee. Fuckin’ hipster,” Lombardo said.
“You still in the Mission?” Bill wasn’t sure what else to say to the guy. He certainly didn’t want to mention Katrina, and that he had seen her recently.
“Yeah, I’m in the Mission. So are you duckweed.”
“I meant do you still live in the Mission.” This did not look good.
“I know what you meant. Hell no, I don’t live in the Mission. West Oakland. You and your techie hipsters pricing us artists out.” “Oakland’s cool.”
“Fuck Oakland! People jacking up rents there too. I’ll probably have to move to Richmond.” He stepped toward Bill.
Bill took a step closer to the edge of the platform where he could get a better look down the tunnel for the approaching train’s light. Lombardo leaned between Bill and his view of the dark tunnel and stood there staring at him as if examining a geek show oddity.
“In my fuckin’ house?” Lombardo said.
“What?” Bill rubbed at the back of his neck where it felt like ants were crawling.
“You know what.” Lombardo moved closer to Bill and exhaled smoke out the side of his mouth. He was so close Bill could smell the whiskey, tobacco, and sweaty man funk. “Katrina. We had something, until you fucked it up.”
Bill noticed the string of iPhone ads on the wall beyond the danger rail. Large photographs shot on the iPhone 6s. Cute pictures of kids and pretty girls done by David R., Dustin C., Alpana A., and others. Then the rush of air hit him in the face. Bill wanted to risk saying something to Lombardo about Katrina, but he was too drunk to get the right words. He struggled with words in face to face situations. He was better in front of his laptop, tablet, or phone.
“Ten car train for Dublin/Pleasanton approaching,” announced the computerized BART voice.
The word “approaching” rattled around in Bill’s head. He thought of that night in the Elbo Room. He wished he could’ve seen the “approaching” punch that knocked him on his ass and bloodied his nose. Would he have said something? Could he have mustered up a lame excuse? Not likely.
With boozed up courage he mumbled just loud enough for Lombardo to hear, “How many times did you hit her?” As soon as he said it, he wanted to suck the words right back down his throat. Lombardo’s eyes told him he had made a big mistake.
“You fuck! Is that what she said about me? I hit her?” Lombardo shifted his feet to a position for a possible punch. Bill braced himself for the possibility, his hand clutching the phone in his pocket for a call to the BART police.
“She never actually said that. It’s just that…” Bill felt himself floundering. He wanted to get on the train, go home, get in bed. He should’ve kept his mouth shut.
“I loved that bitch. What do you know about love? Stuck in your ivory cyberspace tower.” Lombardo lifted his chin at Bill; an ash felt from his smoke and tumbled down his leather jacket and got stuck on a zipper. “You got something to say, say it.”
“One time after,” Bill started, “I noticed…we were…I might’ve seen…” he couldn’t finish his thought.
“After what? After you fucked her? You saw something?” Lombardo took the smoke out of his mouth and sprayed the words, “You piece of shit! You stand there and put a picture in my head of you two together. Physically! You in her!” Lombardo cocked his cigarette hand back as if to throw a punch. Bill flinched.
Lombardo threw his head back and ripped a guttural, “Ha.” He brought his chin down and drew a bead on Bill’s eyes. “You pussy. I’m not gonna hit you this time.”
Bill relaxed, let go of his phone and let the tension ease out of him. The rush of wind caused by the oncoming train pushed harder toward the waiting passengers. Lombardo stood frozen. His stare reminded Bill of the stone eyes above the steps outside the station. Lombardo took the butt of his Marlboro and viciously flicked it at Bill.
In that startling instant, the moment the cigarette left Lombardo’s hand, BART time turned sluggish. Bill focused on the glowing butt as it headed toward his face and observed its revolutions much the same way great hitters claim they can see stitches on the ball as it approaches the strike zone. He followed the cherry end right into his eye. His head jerked back in reflex, his body awkwardly recoiled. One hand flailed behind him, reaching for something that was not there to catch his fall while his other hand rubbed furiously at his scorched eye.
“Jesus Christ!” Bill yelped. He staggered backward on the dimpled yellow platform trying to pull together a coherent thought as to what just happened. He could not. It was too late. He lost his balance; the heel of his soaked foot slipped off the edge of the platform sending him into the space above the tracks. The train hit him and knocked his body forward like Lombardo’s punch in the Elbo Room.
The synapses that fired in his brain the instant before contact, created these thoughts: would someone catch this on their iPhone? Would this show up on YouTube? How many tweets would follow? The last thing Bill saw were the eyes of a kid snorkelling in one of those iPhone pictures.
Bill never heard people scream or the screeching train brakes. Never saw the horror on the conductor’s face. He never felt the impact, or his body hurling through space before landing on the tracks, or the crush of the train over his body. He would never see the tweets or the YouTube video or learn what happened to Lombardo
Joe Grantham is am originally from Kansas City, but currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area via stints in New Orleans and Los Angeles. He’s taught high school, waited tables, sold information to bail bondsmen, and worked in an assisted living facility for those with chronic mental illness. His work has been recently featured in Litro. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBGrantham.