By Brian Asman
So the other weird thing about Bruno Harbeck’s bar was he had this pigeon. It sat on a stool next to a vintage Philadelphia Flyers pennant with newspaper layered on the floor underneath to catch the bird shit. Bruno had put this little studded collar around its neck and tethered the thing to an eyebolt sunk in the wall.
As far as I know, the bird didn’t have a name. Everybody just called it the pigeon. Or the bird. It didn’t really matter. Anybody would’ve known what you were talking about.
How the health department didn’t rain down five kinds of municipal fire and brimstone on Bruno and his bar and his bird, I’ll never know. The bird had been there as long as Bruno had. Maybe longer—the pigeon’s stool could have marked the site of some long-dead tree on which it once perched, before Bruno razed the tree and built the bar up around it.
Maybe first there was the void, and the pigeon was in the void and of the void, and it shat the whole goddamn universe into existence. Somebody’s gotta have a myth like that, no? Makes as much sense as an infinitely dense point exploding in a cosmic orgasm, or a geriatric magician whipping up all there is in a mere seven days, or whatever bullshit the Zoroastrians believe. Something about turtles, maybe? I dunno, I never bothered to look it up.
The other other weird thing about Bruno’s was your first time there, you had to tell the pigeon a secret before he’d serve you.
Yeah, I’m not kidding. I saw it all the time. In those days, the old neighborhood had become infested with a new generation of suburban thrill seekers looking to get away from their neatly manicured lawns and participation trophies and discover something real about the world. These hipster kids would walk into Bruno’s, beards groomed neat as their parents’ lawns, with plug earrings and T-shirts bearing the names of bands no one’s ever heard of, and order a PBR. Bruno would say nope, you gotta tell the bird a secret first. They’d say what, huh, repeat that?
And Bruno would. They’d balk, ask each other a series of half questions (“You mean—” “You can’t be—” “Oh, honey, I think he is”) but finally they’d march up to the bird, lean down, and whisper in its ear.
Sometimes Bruno, who was usually leaning on the bar, the sports page spread out in front of him, would stand bolt upright and say, “That wasn’t a secret.”
The kid would play dumb. But Bruno would just say, “I can tell. There’s this thing he does. And what you just told him wasn’t no fucking secret.”
The kid would argue, hem and haw, but eventually he’d lean back down and whisper something else to the bird. And Bruno would just say, “See? That wasn’t so hard, now was it?”
I never got tired of watching, and I’d been watching for a very long time. I spent more time at Bruno’s than I did at home, where all I had to do was fiddle with the rabbit ears until something I didn’t want to watch anyway came on TV. And I couldn’t go very many places. Back in ’97, I’d been in a car accident, a bad one. My right leg hadn’t healed right, screamed in displeasure if I spent too much time on it, and looked like a peg leg carved by a blind, drunk carpenter who’d maybe heard of prostheses but hadn’t seen the real McCoy up close. Luckily, Bruno’s lay mere blocks away.
The secret I told the bird was about the accident.
I was on disability, since before the accident I worked construction, and I sure wasn’t good for that anymore. I wasn’t good for much, actually, if I’m giving a full accounting of myself here. I woke most days, got cleaned up, and limped on down to Bruno’s. There I sat, drinking ginger ale by the gallon and watching Bruno read the sports page and feeling his bird stare at me with eyes like chunks of obsidian. Bruno’s was one of those places where most everybody knew everybody, except of course for those college kids who’d stop in occasionally—we jokingly called them foreigners. It wasn’t a bad place to spend my time.
Except for the five o’clock hour, when Clarence came in.
Clarence was a big fat guy with a jovial smile who worked in a pastry factory, made knockoff Hostess pies and hot buns, so he always reeked of dough and icing. That wasn’t so bad. The real reason I didn’t like him was because I knew the secret he whispered to the pigeon.
It wasn’t his secret. It was mine.
I guess the bird didn’t care if you told a secret it had heard before or a secret that wasn’t yours to tell. As long as it was an actual secret, that was good enough for the bird, and therefore good enough for Bruno.
I should have known things couldn’t go on like that.
So one day, there I was in Bruno’s, ginger ale on a soggy napkin in front of me, dangling my bum leg off the stool, when the clock ticked five-ish and Clarence walked in. Bruno looked up from the sports page long enough to grunt. A few other drunks said hi—Bruno’s was unusually crowded that day with lushes who’d given up a secret to the bird.
The only open seat was next to me.
Clarence turned his bulk and eased down the walkway between the barstools and the scattered tables, laying a thick, callused hand on the bar next to me. Dried frosting spackled his knuckle hair.
“Hey, man,” he said, “this seat taken?”
I shrugged, because what else could I do? I wanted to get up and walk away, but my leg doesn’t lend itself to hasty or dignified exits.
“Helluva day,” Clarence said, sitting down heavily on the stool, fetid air whooshing out from the cushion’s torn seams. Bruno poured him a frosty mug of Coors.
“Hey,” Bruno said.
“Hey,” Clarence said back. You don’t go to Bruno’s for the conversation.
Bruno went back to his paper. Clarence stirred the foam topping his beer with a finger. I drank my ginger ale. Everybody else minded their own beeswax. The pigeon stared us all down.
“So how you been?” Clarence asked.
I didn’t reply, like one of those movies where somebody says something and the other person doesn’t say shit, and you’re screaming at the TV for them to reply, and it’s annoying. I clearly heard him. I could’ve told him fine or fuck off. I didn’t do either. Just sat there, pissed.
Like I said, I’m not good for much these days.
Clarence and I used to be friends. Not great friends, like we’d help each other move or something, but the kind of friends that nodded to each other and shot the shit and then didn’t exist until the next time we were six beers deep at the same bar. Those kind of friends. The kind who sometimes, after a few drinks, you tell things you shouldn’t.
This was all before Bruno’s, at this other place we used to go. We got too drunk one night, and I told him the secret I’d eventually tell the bird. The next day, sobered up, the mistakes of the night before still ringing in my head, I quit drinking. Funny how I get in an accident, wreck my life and more, and that doesn’t make me quit, but the night I have one too many and tell somebody else about that accident? Plug meet jug.
I hadn’t touched a drop since.
But I still liked bars, with their familiar faces and smells and low buzzing conversation, which was what brought me to Bruno’s. I found it easier not to drink in a bar I’d never been drunk in. But then Clarence heard I was going to Bruno’s, followed me over. And when Bruno said to do the thing with the bird? Clarence told the pigeon my fucking secret.
I could tell because when Clarence’s lips moved, that bird and its glassy eyes looked me dead in the face and didn’t turn away until Clarence was done.
“Not talking to me, huh?” Clarence said. “I don’t get it, man. You stop talking to me, stop drinking, all on the same day. I been letting it go, but—”
“So keep letting it go,” I said.
Clarence shook his head. “Nah, man. I don’t know what I did, but I don’t like walking around feeling like we ain’t right. So what the fuck did I say to you that night? I know I didn’t grab your dick or nothing, that ain’t me.”
I took a sip of ginger ale. Swished it around in my mouth, wishing it was beer. A talk like this was made for beer. I didn’t have any beer, so I didn’t talk.
“And man, when you told me that shit about the accident, I didn’t judge you, I just—”
“Like I said, let it go. That was years ago.”
Clarence shrugged. “Fine. Be that way. You want to be an asshole, be an asshole. My conscience is clean now.”
A gray-haired lady at the end of the bar got up and shuffled toward the door. I glanced down at my leg, wondering if a move was worth the pain.
“Don’t worry about it.” Clarence grabbed his beer and went to take the empty seat.
Abruptly he spun around and walked back to me.
“At least tell the bird,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“Tell the bird why you’ve been so pissed at me all these years.”
I shook my head. “Forget it. I told the bird a secret already.”
“So tell it another one.”
“That’s not how it works,” I said. “Hey, Bruno, tell Clarence this ain’t how it works.”
“It ain’t how it works,” Bruno said, smoothing out the newspaper in front of him.
Clarence looked at me, moisture pooling in the corners of his eyes. Was he really going to cry? The thought disgusted me. The idea that another human being would be so preoccupied with my company made my skin crawl. Why would I matter so much?
He opened his mouth to say something, but I was already lowering my good leg to the ground. I pushed off the stool. A twinge of pain radiated up and down my bad leg. Leaning on my cane, I shuffled over to the pigeon.
The bird sat on its stool, fat with secrets, the corner stinking of shit. It regarded me with blank eyes. Gave its wings a little stutter in a parody of a shrug.
At least the pigeon wasn’t going all moony over me, too.
Clarence’s eyes bored into my back as I leaned down and told the bird, in the quietest voice I could, why I couldn’t stand his ass.
“Bullshit,” Bruno called. I looked up and caught him glaring at me.
“What?” I said.
“You didn’t tell him the real reason.”
Clarence’s bottom lip quivered. “You serious? Can’t even tell the bird what your problem is with me?” He turned to the rest of the room. “This guy won’t even tell the bird why he don’t like me.”
Bruno’s being Bruno’s, nobody seemed to notice.
I leaned heavily on my cane, wondering how the hell a sober man gets himself into situations like this. “I told him. Scout’s honor.” I held up two fingers in a half-remembered salute from my boyhood. I didn’t think it was right.
Bruno shook his head. “How long you been coming here? How many people you see try to lie to the bird? And every time, every single damn time, I call them on it. There’s a thing he does. If it’s not a real secret, I can tell. And you didn’t tell him no fucking secret.”
“You know what?” I said. “Screw both of you.”
I limped back over to my stool, avoiding Clarence’s gaze. Bruno stared daggers at me. As I began the complicated process of sitting back down, Bruno marched over and snatched my drink away.
“What the hell?”
“You know the rules. I can’t serve you till you tell the bird a secret.”
“I already did! Years ago!”
Bruno dumped my glass in the sink behind the bar. “Yeah, you did. But then you lied, so the first one don’t count no more.”
“Bruno—” I began, but he turned his back on me and looked down at the sports page, the subject permanently closed. Clarence shook his head and took a seat at the far end of the bar.
I sat there, half on the stool, half off, feeling like I’d somehow broken through to a brand-new rock bottom never before glimpsed in the million relapses of a million drunks. The worst part was I had told the bird a true secret. Clarence told the bird my secret, and that’s why I couldn’t stand him.
Or so I thought.
Waves of laughter overtook me, spasms of hilarity that made me clutch the bar for dear life. I felt like a Magellan, sailing a sea of rough absurdity no explorer had ever imagined. A line of faces turned, appraised me for a moment, probably hoping I’d fall, then went back to their drinks. I couldn’t stop laughing, and the hint of tears I’d seen in Clarence’s eyes a moment before became reality in mine.
Accompanied by the sound of my own manic laughter, and careful not to put too much weight on my bad leg, I slowly trudged across Bruno’s to the door and showed myself out.
Days passed, as they do. I didn’t go back to Bruno’s. I hung around my apartment, tidying up the place, finally hanging up this picture of a sailboat I’d bought at a flea market years before. Going through boxes of old papers, bills and such, even throwing some out.
There were two other bars within walking distance. Well, walking distance for a cripple—an able-bodied man would’ve had more options. I tried one, then the other. Neither seemed amenable to letting me occupy a stool for hours, drinking nothing stronger than ginger ale. I was used to apathetic gazes and silent nods. Now I got dirty looks and open hostility.
So, I fell off the wagon. Fell all kinds of other places, too. A drunk’s greatest asset is his two legs. I had one and a half. When I made it home with only torn pants, I’d call the night a success.
I started tacking a taxi ride onto the end of my nights so I’d only have to fall down the stairs to my basement apartment instead of up and down four blocks of sidewalk. The taxis strained my disability checks. Payday loans and my landlord’s religiosity filled the gap—Jesus wouldn’t allow him to just kick out a cripple. What you do to the least of these, right?
Some nights I’d scream awake thinking about those glowing neon signs promising quick cash, and the stoop-shouldered people, eyes blank like Bruno’s pigeon, queuing up in front of a bulletproof glass kiosk and begging to pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.
This couldn’t last.
I started early at one of the other bars, couldn’t tell you which one. Treated myself to a glass of cognac first, since I was celebrating. The bartender asked me what for.
“I’m going home,” I told him.
Cheaper stuff followed, and a lot of it. By the time I wore out my welcome, I only had a few bucks left in my pocket. Enough for a ginger ale, even a tip for Bruno. Seemed like a sign.
The walk passed in a flash, and I staggered into Bruno’s sometime in the middle of the afternoon. Bruno looked up from his sports page and glared at me.
“You know the rules,” he said.
I nodded, feeling much like a bobblehead doll. “Yeah, I know the rules,” I slurred. “I’ll tell the damn bird what it wants to know.”
Ignoring the handful of regulars gaping at my return, I stumbled over to the stool, where
the bird sat regarding me with those impassive eyes. Those maddening eyes. All the secrets of the world, or at least the tiny world Bruno and Clarence and I lived in, hidden behind those eyes—forever trapped.
I leaned down and whispered to the bird. I thought I’d told it the truth last time. Or at least the truth as I’d understood it, but that wasn’t enough, there had to be some other truth hiding in my own mind.
Tongue loosened by an afternoon of self-abuse, I spilled my guts to the pigeon. The accident, which I’d been mostly sober for, and what I’d told Clarence about when I’d been drunk. How they figured I just nodded off after a long day at a job site. And then everything after, including why I was back and finally trying to tell the best truth I could, and then I hit on it—the real reason I’d been so mad at Clarence, all these years. Not because he told the bird my secret. Because I told him my secret, and he never thought less of me on account of what I did. Still wanted to be my fucking friend after that. What kind of a person’s okay with something like that?
When I was done, I stood there panting, leaning heavily on my cane, not a secret left in me. Hoping the bird would accept it. Those blank eyes told me nothing.
The pigeon twisted its head around to peck at its tail feathers. I turned around too. Bruno put a glass of ginger ale down on the bar.
“This one’s on the house,” he said, and went back to his sports page.
Around five, Clarence came in, the sweat stains on his white T-shirt glowing in the low light of the bar. He nodded when he saw me, and he looked from me to the bird and back again. Saying nothing, he sat down at the end of the bar and ordered his usual Coors.
With a shot of whiskey on the side.
Maybe I should have told him how I spilled my beans to the bird, but it didn’t occur to me—I was back, Bruno was serving me—he could do the math. And I guess I figured if I told him I told the bird, he wouldn’t leave it at that. Maybe for an hour, two, a night or a week, but we’d be buddy-buddy again and he’d be asking me questions and maybe one day I’d spill the real reason I didn’t want Clarence anywhere near me, which was for me and the bird and no one else.
Over the next hour, I drank ginger ale and got head-achingly sober. Clarence went the other way. It felt good to be back in Bruno’s, but Clarence made me nervous. He was drinking to get drunk. Maybe psyching himself up for something. Nobody else seemed to notice. Maybe because they were doing the same thing. It was a bar, after all.
My head ached harder. Bruno read his sports page and refilled drinks. The bird pecked at its feathers. Clarence started to sway.
I didn’t like it.
He rose from his stool, knocking it over. A few heads turned at the clatter. Bruno even looked up from his newspaper.
“Clarence? You okay?”
Clarence shook his head, hid his face with his hands. I looked down at the bubbles in my glass, the melting ice. Whatever was going on with him, I wanted no part of it. Just as I’d wanted no part of him since the night I’d drunkenly told him about the accident.
Clarence rushed me. I gripped the handle of my cane, hoping to get one good shot in before he took me apart, but then he was past me with a faint pastry stink, standing in front of the bird’s stool, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Tell me. I want to know.”
“Clarence,” Bruno said, “I think you’ve had a bit too much.”
“Tell me,” Clarence repeated. “Tell me, tell me, tell me.”
“That’s enough. I want you outta here.”
“Tell me,” Clarence said, snatching the bird off its stool and raising it level with his teary eyes. The bird wriggled in his grasp, pecked at his fingers.
“Clarence!” Bruno thundered. “Put the fucking bird down now. I won’t tell you again.”
The whole bar held their breath, stared at the big, blubbering man and the helpless pigeon in his grasp. Nobody had ever touched the bird before. My stomach, even leveled by the ginger ale I’d been dosing with ever since I earned my way back into Bruno’s, slumped sick and hollow beneath my rib cage.
I hadn’t felt like this since the accident, since those last, slow-motion moments when I’d screamed “fuck this,” taken my hands off the wheel, and drifted over into oncoming traffic, where my truck violently greeted a ’94 Toyota Tercel driven by a sixteen-year-old kid who’d never get to turn seventeen.
The worst part was the split second when my eyes adjusted to the oncoming headlights, and I saw how small that car was, how wide the kid’s eyes were, his dirty smudge of a goatee, the strawberry air freshener hanging from the rearview, and the silent scream on his lips.
No. The worst part was knowing that kid got the gift I’d been trying to give myself.
We all looked at Bruno aiming a sawed-off. “Goddamn you, Clarence.”
A violent boom rent the air. Something wet spattered my cheek. Clarence wavered on his heels, the remains of his face a ragged mess of torn flesh and scoured cheekbones.
The rest of it covered the Flyers pennant.
His hands spasmed, the pigeon’s bones cracking as Clarence’s knees gave way, and he tumbled to the floor to finish up his dying on the layered newspaper streaked with bird shit.
Bruno stood there, chest heaving, shotgun still pointed at the wall covered in Clarence’s blood and brains and skin and that damn Flyers pennant. A bright white skull fragment stuck right there in the bull’s-eye center of the P. Down among the bird shit, Clarence’s body twitched.
Nobody moved. Nobody said anything. Finally, somebody coughed. Mighta been me.
Bruno gently lowered the shotgun and sat it on the bar. He took a dirty towel and held it to his face, a stifled moan emanating from beneath. Ice cubes tinkled in rocks glasses as the other patrons brought drinks to their lips, diving headlong into the familiar and sane.
Bruno walked around the bar and leaned on the stool his bird had stood on all those years, since maybe before there’d been a bar, even. He looked down at Clarence, and the bird. Sobbing, he squatted and gently pulled the pigeon from Clarence’s meaty dead fingers.
All around the bar, people finished their drinks and ran for the exits. Somebody would call the police. Or maybe somebody in the apartment upstairs already had.
I spun my stool around, clambered off, trying my best to ignore the snuffling sounds coming from the floor behind me. Limping to the exit, my throat dry, twinges of pain shooting up my bum leg. Knowing I’d just watched my secret die twice in a span of seconds.
As I pushed the front door open, wailing sirens echoing through the night, that kid’s face came to me again. The silent scream, and how it should have been mine, if it hadn’t been so dark, if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get the hell off the planet, I couldn’t tell a compact from a semi.
And I saw Clarence, too, sitting in the passenger seat next to the kid, lit up by my high beams. What formed on his face was not a scream, silent or otherwise, but a question, whose answer could now only be found in the brain of a dead pigeon clutched tightly to its broken owner’s chest, and the mind of a bent and crooked man who honestly didn’t give a shit.
Brian Asman is a writer, editor, producer, and actor from San Diego, CA. He’s the author of I'm Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today from Eraserhead Press, and Man, Fuck This House, Nunchuck City and Jailbroke from Mutated Media. He’s recently published short stories in the anthologies Breaking Bizarro, Welcome to the Splatter Club, and Lost Films, and comics in Tales of Horrorgasm. An anthology he co-edited with Danger Slater, Boinking Bizarro, was recently released by Death's Head Press. He holds an MFA from University of California, Riverside at Palm Desert. He’s represented by Dunham Literary, Inc. Max Booth III is his hype man.