The Incident at Cherokee Mounds Bar and Grill

From time to time a man falls victim to an experience that makes him question the validity of all prior experience – this was the case for Walter Short. Walter had never really aspired to much and thus was quite content with where he had arrived in his life, namely Arkansas. He had no wife, no children, no significant financial investments, no prospects of betterment. . . In fact, he only had three things to his name.

Firstly, he had a ‘double-wide’ trailer (Two trailers saddled against each other lengthwise, with a large hole sawn through the walls to provide entry from the first to the next) that he had built himself. The most treasured of his possessions was a ’79 El Camino, painted a slate grey with white racing stripes, and containing a variety of mechanical components and modifications that were impressive only to those who frequently spoke about ’79 El Caminos.  The least of his meagre triad was his job; weekend bartender at Cherokee Mounds Bar and Grill.

The job was, in his words, “a job”. Whenever asked about it, he would proclaim “It’s a job.” It was, definitely and unequivocally, a job. The hours were shit, the pay was shit, but it gave him a chance to ogle (and illegally distribute alcohol to) young women. Cherokee Mounds was one of those fine establishments that desperately tried to avoid referring to itself as a strip-club despite appealing to the same primal urges. Few patrons could tell you much about the drinks or the food but all could rhapsodize on the alluring young women, freshly plucked from Southeast High School, now receiving minimum wage to wear Cherokee-styled outfits that straddled the line between offensive and nonexistent while pretending to flirt with old townsmen. If the sum of the Bar and Grill could speak, they would likely say little more than “It’s a job.”

Walter started his shift that night with a rather glum task. One of the live traps in the cooler had a rat in it, and the manager decided that Walter should be the one to take care of it. The manager didn’t like Walter much, but Walter didn’t particularly care for the manager either. In his own words to a passing waitress, “Roy’s a dick.” Regardless of the validity of his statement, Walter still followed through with the task. He fetched the trap and misspent a moment making eye contact with the rat. It was a noisy thing, with bristling brown fur, but possessed a certain uncouth charm that reminded Walter of something he couldn’t quite place, but perhaps was Mickey Mouse. He suppressed that comparison as he brought the trap around back.

He remembered seeing his father do this once, twenty-some years back. “You just dunk the thing in the water and hold it there til’ it’s done moving, Walt.” He did. A short walk away from the Mounds, he dumped the waterlogged rat into the woods. It looked so flimsy, so devoid of warmth, that it briefly swelled compassion in his heart. He returned to the bar.

The shift was a regular Saturday shift, 6-2, though today the establishment was holding their first karaoke night. As the bartender, he usually found himself in the center of a hurricane of young flesh and grizzled mumblings – today was no different, save the off-key singing from the small stage on the north wall. All went as usual, drinks and orders exchanged for dollars, until the gang rolled in to the restaurant. There were fifteen of them, huge burly men with leather jackets, each decorated with skulls and stitches, crosses and flames. The Sinning Saints, as everyone in town knew, were a very rough group of bikers – there were whispers of investigations against them for drug smuggling, hate crimes, petty theft, grand theft, a half-dozen murders, and mayhem. As far as Walter was concerned, they tipped well and that made them good folks. They took up most of the bar.

The performer at the stage’s screeching was particularly onerous, and rarely had Bad Romance sounded so devoid of rhythm. The Saints were sniggering around the bar, until one worked up the courage to ask Walter, “Hey man, who do I talk to for the karaoke?”

“Oh, go see Christie up by the stage. She’s the one with the red feathers.”

“Thanks, man.” He stood then, all 250 pounds of him, clad in black leather, emblems of burning skulls and swastika making way to the stage. Walter had rarely seen a man who so embodied his idea of hypermasculine badassery, and was certain he was about to hear another growling rendition of some Metallica or Def Leppard song.

The muscular neo-Nazi took the stage after his brief wait. Walter, Christie, Roy, the bikers, the old men, the young men, the girls, the women, every soul in the building found their attention abruptly snap to the stage as a fey twinkling emitted from the speakers.

I’ve been awake for a while now…” It was a soft noise, far softer than the man seemed capable of.

“Got me feeling like a child now, ‘cause every time I see your bubbly face…” The brute’s voice was lilting as a wind-chime, drifting from note to note with such expert precision it seemed effortless.

“I get the tingles in a silly place…It starts in my toes, and I crinkle my nose, where-ever it goes I always know…” The room seemed a vacuum as all other sound ceased, all attention brought solely to the large man and his delicate song. The next three minutes had the hypnagogic quality of a fairy tale, each line sung more sweetly than the last. No host in heaven had ever heard such a sound, and for the remaining three minutes no other word was uttered in Cherokee Mounds.

Cause you make me smile here, just for a while… Thank you.” He gave a half-bow and shuffled off the stage.

The world wept. All throughout the bar, in every corner, every man and woman in that moment was possessed of a multitude of thoughts, of loved ones lost and opportunities missed, of sweet songs long unsung and too-familiar tragedies. Even Walter found himself welling with wistful sorrow. The bikers left soon after, yet the bar didn’t fully recover by closing time.

He returned to his El Camino after closing, drove home without the accompaniment of any radio station, silently paced his double-wide trailer for half an hour, then sobbed himself to sleep. That night, he dreamt of possibility.

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