In grainy black-and-white memories of a West that never was, filtered through the immature mind of a long-gone eight-year-old, he still wanted to be the boy who always ordered a sarsaparilla to drink while he waited for his father at the saloon. The boy would sit there at a table and watch the grown men dressed in chaps, dungarees, leather vests, and cowboy hats gamble at the tables and drink at the bar.
The sarsaparilla boy loved the pretty lady who lived upstairs from the saloon. She always gave him a kiss on the cheek before going upstairs to her room. The boy was too young to understand the truth about her, but not too young to get a different, warm kind of feeling when she kissed him, and not too young to feel a vague, formless anger toward the men he would see coming back down the stairs after disappearing from the bar for a while.
It was the first night of the year that he was going to sleep with the windows open in the apartment he rented on the top floor of an old firetrap rowhouse near the river, with its view out the front windows of the gutted out, roofless brick shell of a long-vacant textile mill. Soon, he knew, it would be hot, and he’d have to put up the noisy old window air conditioning unit. But for now he was enjoying the warm fresh air of the spring night.
Before drifting to sleep he lay quietly, listening to his own breathing. Mixed with the scent of the spring air was the smell of Jim Beam from an open bottle on the nightstand, a hint of manure odor from the farms just across the river, and an aged pinewood aroma from the dull, worn-out planks of his bedroom floor.
Next to the whiskey bottle on the nightstand was a small print of a family portrait he had taken just a few years ago with his wife, son, and daughter. He looked clean, confident and corporate in the portrait, the man in the sharp, pressed suit bearing little resemblance to the shirtless, disheveled figure sprawled on the bed now in the dark room.
He sat up and drew a last swig from the Jim Beam bottle. As he lay back down and turned on his side he quietly sang a slurred fragment of the first two lines of an old Simon and Garfunkel song: “He was a most … peculiar man. That’s what … Mrs. Reardon said … and she should know …”
He awoke at three in the morning feeling dizzy and nauseous. The night had turned a bit chilly and he shivered as he staggered out of bed and into the bathroom. Squinting from the brightness after he switched the bathroom light on, he bent over the commode to throw up. But it was only dry heaves.
The small countertop surrounding the rust-stained sink was cluttered with pill bottles. Green toothpaste oozed onto the Formica from an uncapped tube, next to a white ceramic mug stained brown inside from dried coffee. Atop some mail stacked on the counter was an envelope, coffee-stained in the corner, from the United States Treasury–his disability check, which he remembered he’d need to cash on Monday when rent was due.
The white mug still smelled strongly of old coffee when he picked it up, gave it a cursory rinse, and filled it with water from the tap. He gulped it down too fast and felt a sharp pain in his throat. Leaving the bathroom light on to give some dim illumination to the room, he walked out and knelt down to look through a stack of old VHS tapes next to the TV stand. When he found the one he was looking for he popped it in the VCR, grabbed the remote, and sat down at the foot of the bed.
He didn’t bother rewinding the tape, knowing that last time he had probably stopped it just before his favorite scene, toward the end of the movie. Sure enough, he had. As the black-and-white image appeared on the screen, the pretty lady who lived upstairs from the saloon was sitting with two men at the bar, laughing and joking flirtatiously with both of them, one clean-shaven and one with a big handlebar mustache.
But for some reason the man with the big handlebar mustache got angry. He stood up from his stool and started yelling at the clean-shaven man. The pretty lady tried to run off but the man with the handlebar mustache grabbed her and she screamed. The clean-shaven man got up and swung at him and the pretty lady got away when he dodged the the punch.
Just as the man with the handlebar mustache drew his revolver, the sarsaparilla boy’s father drew his own gun and shouted for the man with the handlebar mustache to drop his. But then someone ran up behind the sarsaparilla boy’s father and hit him in the back of the head with a heavy bottle. As he dropped to the floor, the revolver went flying out of his hand, toward the table where the sarsaparilla boy was sitting, as the bald, bespectacled barkeep stood and looked on, motionless, from behind the bar.
The sarsaparilla boy jumped out of his chair and grabbed his father’s gun just as the man with the handlebar mustache started walking, revolver in hand, toward his father.
“I’ll kill you if you hurt my daddy!” the sarsaparilla boy shouted, pointing his father’s gun at the man with the handlebar mustache.
Just then the Marshall burst in, gun drawn, through the swinging louvered doors. The man with the handlebar mustache, obviously drunk, started laughing uncontrollably as he turned his head to look at the boy and then at the Marshall. He dropped his gun and threw up his hands, and the sarsaparilla boy ran to help is father, who was already starting to sit up, rubbing the back of his head, as he came to.
The screen went blue as he stopped the tape, and then it went black at the touch of another button on the remote. He got up from the bed and cut off the bathroom light, leaving the bedroom dark again.