Bulletproof

"Take her butt," Merle said.
"I wish," Ray said.
"Looks like half a basketball," Merle said.
Ray leaned forward, his elbow on wet beer can sweat. He breathed through his mouth. "I've noticed."
Merle said, "And for a little girl, ever notice those big...? These..." He held his hands, palms cupped toward his chest.
Coughing, Ray dug a handkerchief from his back pocket. "Never paid attention to those two, big, healthy, bautiful lungs. How'd I miss that?"
Ray coughed again. Merle winced. "You oughta quit."
Ray fingered a pack of shirt-pocket Winstons. "Ever tried to quit breathing?"
"You sound like you're trying to." And right away, Merle wished he hadn't said that. "We like you here." He waived a hand in the direction of the club. "Sometimes me and Heath worry. He stopped, looked about. "You're a friend, Ray. I ain't trying to be mean."
Ray said that Merle and Heath never gave "me any credit for cutting down." Merle was tempted to say he hadn't cut down so you could notice, but remembered his daddy said that you should never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut.
Ray looked down at, then pushed away a partially-eaten hamburger. "Jesus."
Merle pointed to the plate. "Spoiled?"
"Just thinking. They killed a cow and pulled her stomach and gizzards out, stripped her hide off. Cut up the carcass, ground up the meat, packed it. That's an awful lot of trouble for a sandwich." He shoved the plate farther away. "What do you reckon they do with the guts?"
Merle looked over at the bar where Heath loaded a tray. "Maybe dog food."
Ray dropped his voice. "Listen son, I 'preciate your concern, as they'd say. But if I could, I'd a quit 'em a long time ago. All the same, it gets tiresome being reminded I'm hurtin' my damned self." Ray's hair, once blond, had been turning gray and was two-toned, a whiter shade on a darker one. He had what Heath called smoker's skin-a dishwater gray etched with fine lines. He was a gray man, she said. But when Lillian divorced Merle, Ray was there, putting up with Merle's beer-soaked whining, offering Merle the use of a room at his house though Merle went to Budgetel. Ray's house smelled like a Phillip Morris factory. But Ray was there for him, by God. And he, Merle'd, be there for Ray. By God.
Air conditioners in the Sixty-One Club's wall bumped to life, and overhead cool air moved the smoke around. Heath stopped at the juke and soon the club heard Willie singing "If You Got the Money." When Heath stood before their table, Merle drew in his breath shrap because her tight, white jeans were the crack-eating type and with them she wore a pale blue T-shirt that read "Tar Heels," and had little black feet running over it. Thinking of bare feet and bare meat misted Merle's eyes.
Heath's real name was Tiffani Dawn Johnson, but she said that "sounded like a topless dancer." She but her dead daddy's name on the ID button above her left breast and everyone called her Heath. Everyone knew, too, that Tiffani Dawn was her mother's idea, and Heath had always been her daddy's girl and stayed with him when her mother went to Florida with a meat cutter. "So, what'll you dudes have?" They always drank Busch Lights and they knew she knew and she knew they knew she knew, but Merle wasn't anxious to send her on her way and she knew this, too, because she knew her customers. So she stood there in the white tights, fronting their table. Ray looked away, but Merle shot glances at her crotch now and again, trying to think of something witty. Finally he jerked his head over toward the juke box and said, "Heath, if you got the money..." He smiled what he hoped was a winner up at her.
She plucked a pencil from an explosion of blonde hair held in a loosely-organized ponytail with what looked like a pink garter and tapped it on the green order pad. "So, whadya want?"
Merle looked at Ray who put his Winston in the ash tray where it'd burn for a long damned time. "Two Busch's?" he said. Merle nodded and before Heath could get away, repeated, "If you got the money, honey." Shouldn't have said that. Not the second time. It sounded weak but it was the closest he'd come to asking Heath for a date and he felt a little good about it.
She whipped around, frowning. "Look, Rambo. It's always a girl who wants to know if you got the money."
"You mean if I got the money...?" I mean, I got some money...honey." His laugh sounded like a condemned man who'd heard a joke.
"Then I got the time," and she was off to the bar. She sometimes wore a T-shirt that had the snow-capped peaks of the Busch logo right over her boobs, across which was printed, "If you like my peaks," and an arrow pointing downward to her crotch with the words, "You oughta see my bush." Tommy Slater, the bartender and manager, discouraged her from wearing this because when she did she had to whip some cowboy's ass before the night was over.
"You get a 'holt of some money?" Ray asked when Heath was gone.
"Not really, but I got an idea."
"Girls like money, better." Ray stubbed out a Winston and heaved one of his wheezy sighs. "If that girl," Ray moved his head in the direction of the bar, "farted in the bathtub, you'd break the bubbles in your mouth."
When Merle thought about Heath, naked in a bathtub, his eyes went into soft focus. "No, I wouldn't," he said, recovering.
Ray said, "Yes you would, but it's okay. I understand that, Merle. Heath's a killer."
Merle said, "Heath don't fart."
"What?"
"Can't imagine her farting." Merle wished he hadn't gotten into this. Of course she farts. Sometime.
Ray laughed. "Reckon she pees lemonade?"
Merle was quiet and thoughtful for a minute. "I've never heard her fart."
"Merle," Ray said, "I've never heard you fart." He thumped afresh cigarette on the table top, packing it down. "What'd you do, Merle, if Heath was standing right there and you had to cut one? I mean it was one of those gut-twisting, nose-wrinkling farts that you just had to let go or die? What'd you do?"
Merle didn't think on this a second. "I'd die." They both laughed and looked about the room, checking out the crowd that was gathering as it did after five. "'Bout the same," Ray said. Merle nodded, but Merle didn't hear. In his mental topsoil, the seed of an idea was taking root.

Standing before a '95 Bonneville that had a little fuel injector problem, Merle put down the wrench, went to the Coke machine and, can in hand, strolled out to the lot where the weeds grew up around a weathered Camaro Z-28. The car was headed for the junkyard because it had been a wreck that bent the frame. For months, Merle now and then slipped back there, cleaning it up, little by little. He set the Coke down on an old engine block to drain the Z-28's oil. The put in five quarts of Castrol 10W50,, jump-started the sucker and the car cranked right up. It needed new belts and hoses. "No problemo," he said under his breath. The fact that the Z-28 turned over was a good omen. Merle sang, "We'll go honky-tonkin'."
"Tell you what, Boss," he told Jay Dee up in the office, "I'd like to work on that old Z-28." This was a little lie, but not really. He didn't deny he'd been working on it for five months.
"Not on company time."
"No, sir." Jay Dee liked Sir, and Boss and any other knee-walking, brown-nosing you could think of. "Just slip out now and then and try to get 'er hard."
Jay Dee held a stack of grease-finger-printed papers. "Wanna buy it?"
"How much?"
"Three hunnert."
"Aw, Boss man. This is your brother you're talking to." Jay Dee made a lot over the fact that everyone at Auto Hospital was family.
"A hunnert?"
"Seventy bucks?"
"It ain't a bad car. Needs a little body work. It'd bring two hunnert."
Merle wiped his hands on an inky cloth. "It needs seven hunnert in labor, plus parts. He used Jay Dee's pronunciation. "And, Jay Dee, don't bring 'er in the shop until you get the wasp nests out. Needs to be checked for snakes, too."
"Oh, shit, man. Take the damned thing. I could've got a hunnert, though. There's a registration somewhere in that file cabinet." Jay Dee's office had not been straightened since his bookkeeper Lillian Pringle died in '87. A layer of dust lay on everything, including the overhead light fixture and the small, single window. Two wastebaskets were full and you could see where Jay Dee had stepped into each to compress the contents. Bits of paper littered the floor which was black and tracked with grease and oil. It took a half hour, but Merle found the registration, gave Jay Dee a check and got the title signed over.
He waited three days, so Jay Dee wouldn't think he'd put one over on him, then he cleaned the windows, destrotyed the wasp nest under the visor and drove the car home. He did not check for snakes, but smiled at the thought. The car sounded pretty solid. Of course, with a bent frame, it'd be hell on tires. He didn't replace any hoses, but got a belt off an old Chevy and took the car to a detail shop, after which he sold it for $790, and a high school boy's prayers were answered. "Wouldn't try too much high speed work," he told the kid. "It's had a hard life."
The boy didn't answer. There were lights in his eyes and Merle wondered what he had visions of. Probably babes and back seats. "Safety first," he said. The boy jerked open the door and spun out, sending curbside debris flying from behind his rear tires.

Merle stopped at the juke to punch in A-22 twice. Willy's voice promised, "...we'll go honky-tonkin'..." Merle hoped Heath would notice because this could become their song. At the bar, she didn't look around. She had on a green T-shirt that lit up in the dark and showed a little nipple through the fabric. Merle's heart raced.
Ray took a Winston from his shirt. "You are one sick puppy."
"Maybe, but it's a good bet I don't have the cancer, though sometimes I'm afraid I'll get black lung from sitting with you." This brought to mind the possibility of not sitting with Ray, who was his only...connection with...you might say, family. God-damn, what a thought. Same for Ray, if you didn't count his wife, which he, Ray, didn't. It occurred to Merle right then that the guys in Sixty-One were king of alone, a scary idea. They didn't have families in the usual sense. He drank deep of cool beer and looked over at Heath's nipples which were being appreciated be four guys seated at the bar where the view was better.
Back in the early 80's, Merle lived with Christine Newton two years, so he knew something about that, but though sex love had a lot of heat, it cooled off just as fast. His friendship with Ray was solid as a truck transmission. He drank to that.
Heath wore tight black jeans. "Ya'll want Busch?" Merle thought of bush and saw the dim club interior as if underwater, everything soft and shimmering. He nodded dumbly and stared at her miracle butt as she walked away.
Ray whispered, "She's twenty-one to your forty-seven."
Twenty-one. Like a high school girl. Merle thought about how it was in high school with Vanita Branson, and the room blurred. "She don't know you're alive, Merle." Ray lit up and smoked without coughing. "You can find a girl. No problem."
"Where at?"
Ray went into thought, sucking on the butt, eyes narrowing to slits. "Mempho."
"Memphis?"
"Thirty miles. Hang out at some bar." Merle thought it said something that Ray started coughing at this point.
Heath came back with Busch. "Four dollars." Merle tossed a five and three ones on her tray.
"It's only four," she said.
"Keep it," Merle said while Ray's face first reflected surprise, then disgust. "I come upon a little money," and with a wink added, "honey."
Heath shoved the money down the front of her jeans. Merle sucked in his breath. She put her pad and pencil on top of the tray and laid it down on the table. "I gotta do this four times a day," she said, "so if I do it now, maybe I'll only have three to go before closing time." She slid into the booth beside Merle, her leg next to his, causing the room to quiver in a fuzzy glow. Merle felt hot, hard blood rush downward. "As you dudes know, I don't have a boyfriend," she began, "and have given serious consideration to crossing over to the lesbos. I ain't natural at it, but some of the stuff is okay." She massaged her neck. "But I would not think of doing that except I am so sick of men I could puke." She snorted. "I feel a little like puking right now." Merle couldn't imagine she ever had thrown up. Maybe as a baby. Heath looked over at Ray's Winston. "Men puke out on the parking lot, down on all fours, letting it all hang out. Oh, you guys are beautiful." Merle never had puked on the parking lot. In the toilet, but never on the lot. When Heath stretched her legs, her thigh again lightly moved against Merle's, but it was clear she didn't think nothing of it. "I get steady macho bullshit from the time I go on at noon. That's twelve hours. Why do losers come into a bar looking for women? What woman would have anything to do with a guy who'd hang out here? What kind of woman can you find in the Sixty-One? Would they take one of our Sixty-One girls home to meet mama?" She paused to finger memory pages. "Oh, a guy might hook up with Francine Methany. She gets drunk here three nights a week." Francine bragged she had slept with the entire Shawnee County sheriff's staff and could drive drunk unless the state boys got her. She was working on that aspect of the problem. Francine was rumored to have AIDS, although Ray said someone started that to give the boys in the sheriff's department bad dreams.
Merle received Heath's opinions uneasily. She was talking, maybe about him and Ray, too, though it was friendly, like she was letting them in on something. He'd never thought about how it was for a good-looking piece to get hit on night after night while trying to do her job. Feeling sorry for her took a little of the sparkle out of his romance.
Until he looked at her jeans.
Heath checked out Tommy Slater, but there were only four other people at tables, so it was cool for her to sit. "And the smell. My God. Some of the guys don't use deodorants. You mix that with the beer and the cigar smoke and the puke and by midnight I'm ready to give back my supper. Someone asked me how I so thin and I told 'em I'm nauseous all the time." She slapped her head with both palms, once, twice, three times. "Merle, you've been looking me over for two years. You don't have nobody and I'm sorry for that, but I don't date. Not in the way you'd be interested in, champ." She looked up at the ceiling, hugged her arms and closed her eyes. "Some day some stud will walk in-all tall and tan and a little bashful. He'll have biceps as big as grapefruit and I won't be able to get my pants down quick enough." She rose. "You guys, I consider friends. You're gentlemen." Merle frowned at this, unsure he wanted to be in this category, though it was better than being one of the parking lot pukers. Before she left, Merle, who'd been working on getting enough guts for this, said, not believing with his own ears, his own words, "Would you like to go to Tunica? Like friends?" Ray looked away, out across the little dancefloor, embarrassed to be sitting there while Merle made a damned fool of himself.
"Maybe." She walked away. "Long as you know how the land lays."
Lays.
Merle's eyes clouded.
Ray wanted to know how he'd have enough money to take a girl to one of Tunica's casinos, and Merle told him about fixing up the Z-28 and selling it for $790.
"For a casino date, seven hundred ain't shit." Merle did not think how the hell Ray would know what a casino date cost. Just took him at his word. He was right about a lot of stuff. Last year, he picked Denever over the Packers.

Saturday afternoon Merle headed his pickup toward Tunica, to the Blue Horizon which rose from the delta's flat earth like an Egyptian pyramid. He chose the Blue Horizon over other casinos because of the song his mama used to sing, part of which went, "Joy is waiting da-da-dum-dum." It was an omen and he hummed the song as he went from the parking lot into the casino. He told Ray later, "I played a machine and stuff came out all over the place. On pull. Damned thing spilled out all over the floor."
"How much?"
A little over two K. Godamighty, Ray. Two K's."
When Ray coughed, his eyes shut and his face went red. He always dug for his handkerchief first thing, but if he didn't get it soon enough, little white spit balls exploded from between his lips. He lit up and said, "These things," holding the butt up, "solidify my lungs."
"Ray," Merle said with some urgenncy, leaning across the table between them, "they're rotting your lungs."
"Not what my doctor said."
Merle would have asked who the hell this cdoctor was, but it would have been embarrassing because Ray wouldn't be able to name a doctor that told him to smoke. Merle, drinking beer seriously fast, finally got to the point where he asked Heath, "Wanna go to the Blue Horizon some night?"
Heath said, "That costs money."
Merle said, "I got some."
Heath said, "I mean lots, hon.'."
Merle said, "I got lots," and added, "hon'."
Heath said, "How much?"
Merle said, "Two K."
Heath said, "Pick me up six, Sunday." A thought: she knew that he knew where she lived. The two-thousand-dollar lever pull. The Blue Horizon. Jesus. The omens were stacking up.

Heath drank whiskey sours. Tommy Slater didn't let her drink at the Sixty-One, but she was pouring 'em down this night and Merle happily led her around to the different tables like he knew what the hell he was doing. He remembered how to play black jack, but the other games mystified him. To avoid the roulette and crap tables, he steered her to the slots where she hit for two hundred dollars and put it in her purse, calling it her winnings, though continuing to play with his money. On a net basis, they lost $2,200 of his money. Merle thought about drawing on his Visa, but remembered Ray's warning, "You don't wanna be a sugar daddy, do you? You probably got no chance of getting anything outta this but her company." There was something really repulsive hearing Ray say, "suagr daddy." Like he paid for stuff. Hell, he'd never paid for any. Heath wasn't into that sort of thing anyway.
At 11:30 she quit drinking and at 12:02 she clung to his arm as they slid out of the huge glass doors into the parking lot's blue darkness. She moved to his side of the truck seat and their thighs touched, sending his pulse rate into three digits, but when he pulled up into the driveway of her apartment, she said, "It's been super, I'd invite you in..." He desparately tried to frame an argument to turn back whatever reason she'd offer for his not coming in. "...but we both have long days in front of us tomorrow." She gave him a smile you'd put on a good uncle.
Wouldn't mind having a cup of coffee." It was all he could think of although there was a pro-wrestling re-run on Channel 22 he didn't mention.
"Well, baby," she said, "I mind. I go to work in eleven hours and I want to sleep, and do a wash, darlin'." She kissed him as Merle sat dumbly, looking out the windshield at the light post. Kissing him on the mouth, her own tightly closed. "There ya go, boy." She slammed the door, but, smiling, came around to his lowered window. "Don't get no ideas, Merle. I've kissed women harder, longer and deeper." She ambled a little unsteadily on three-inch heels, off toward the apartment building where a single, yellow light burnned over the entrance. Never looked back. He watched her go, watched the movement of her tight black satin slacks and her fabulous half-basketball butt.

The Sity-One Club looked a lot like the Shawnee County prison farm - unpainted, low, squatty, gray, concrete block, no windows, air conditioners stuck into walls, gravel parking lot. Of course, the county farm had cyclone fencing topped with razor wire. The Sity-One was a nicer place then it looked from the outside. A person'd never guess at the good feelings. Those men who came regular knew each other and bought beers all around and talked about football and farming and cars. Well, women, too. Like brothers, except peaceful, they didn't fight until later after Merle and Ray left. The club lost a good man last spring when Walter Lester, cook over at the Holiday Inn, had to give up drinking because of his doctor. He told Merle that his life changed. "I don't know no one," he said.He hung out at Smokehouse Billiards for a while but said they had too much open beer there so he joined First Baptists Church and attended a lot of eating meetings. "Everyone goes home at eight."
Merle was anxious to tell Ray about Heath's kiss, but his black pickup was not in the lot. Inside, Merle stood motionless, letting his eyes widen to the darkness. Heath was behind the bar. Tommy Slater was not around. A new girl in a white T-shirt and faded, washed blue jeans stood at the bar getting a beer order. A couple of farmers, necks darkened by the sun and bits of mud hanging to their boots, stood in front of the juke. Merle waited for Heath to make eye contact. "How they hangin', buckaroo?" She pulled three Natural Lights from the cooler.
"Okay, I guess." The farmers were not regulars. Heath never worked the bar. Tommy wasn't there, Ray neither. The new girl, who was pitching right in, had really big globes. Her butt swung side to side instead of winking like Heath's half-basketball.
"What the hell's going on?"
"The mill put on another shift." Heath wiped wet rings from the bar top, "Tommy promoted himself to full-time manager and I moved up to bartender. The new kid's name is Claire. Claims she's nineteen."
"Ray been around?" He squinted into the dimness.
Heath hung a glass in the overhead rack. "Whoa, stud." Shhe moved to the mirror backing the darkened where half a dozen stickum notes hung like yellow butterflies to water. Plucking one, she read, "Room One-two-two. Shawnee County Memorial." She gave him the note. "Wants you to call."
"Hospital?" His gaze picked up the new girl - a brunette with close-cropped hair, diamond in her nose, small waist, big smile, which she turned on him at that moment. "Shawnee Memorial Hospital?"
Heath sighed so you could hear it. "That's the one, bubba." SHe wiped the chopping board - white plastic with bits of red meat clinging to it - where she put together burgers.
"What the hell's he doing in there?"
"We know what he's doing in there, now don't we, Merle? We've known this was coming, didn't we, Merle?"
Merle went around the bar and punched in the number, barely reading it in the dim light from off of the little stickum note.
"Ray?"
"That you, Merle?"
"What's going on, Ray?"
"They're gonna pull a lung?" Said it like a question: like Merle might be able to tell him, No, that's not the case. They're not gonna do that. Not really.
"Pull it?"
There was silence, then Ray said, " Take it out. Make dog food outta it."
Merle wondered about asking what his chances, Ray's chances, were for making it. Jesus. He couldn't ask that. "So how you doin'?" Dumb damned thing to say.
Ray croaked, "That's a kinda dumb thing to ask a man who's gonna have alung cut out at 10 in the morning. The doctors said it's 50-50, maybe. I didn't ask what that means. Think of it: 50-50....maybe. That's the way they put it, like it may not be 50-50 at all."
Merle said, "Cancer?"
"Yeah, but don't say you and Heath told me." Now neither of them could bridge the silence cause it was so full of stuff they didn't want to deal with. Ray said, "Merle, I'd really like for you to come see me before they take me to Memphis."
Merle looked at the new girl, and her wide, solid butt. God, man, it was Friday afternoon. It was 5:20. The weekend was just beginning. This new girl had been smiling at him. Nineteen. Just out of high school. Friday night. A regular, hard-drinking night. Jesus."When's visiting hours?"
Anytime up until ten. And Merle?"
"Yeah?"
"I ain't had a cigarette all day."
"That's good, Ray. Damned good. I'll be out." They said goodbye and Merle turned to Heath and said, "They're taking out a lung tomorrow. 'Fifty-fifty,' the doctors say. But then they say, 'maybe.'"
"My dad lived six months after that operation." Merle wished it all hadn't happened. Not only Ray's sickness, but Heath working behind the bar and the new girl and death to think about and being without Ray to think about it with. Ray was the only person he'd tell Heath had kissed him and he would hhave understood that it might not mean much, but that it might, and that it meant a hell of a lot to Merle.

"Want a beer?" Claire was at his elbow.
"Welcome to the Sity-One Club. Take a Busch to that booth back there. Gotta go to the hospital. In a minute." He watched her nice ample rump saw. "I'll drink one," he told Heath, "then go out to the hospital. Jesus. Best friend a man could have." It was Friday night.
"I'll take your word for that, Merle."
Claire came to the booth and sat. He paid her, tipping a half buck for the one beer. "Heath tells me you're a player."
"Oh, I don't know."
She looked up toward the door where the two off-duty, but uniformed cops, stood searching for their eyesight. "Customers. Um...Jesus."
"I'll be going to the hospital in a few minutes."
She said that she knew. She went up to the front to check with Heath then returned to sit next to him. He smelled her perfume and the cigarette smoke that hung onto her hair and clothes and quickly finished the Busch. "Hon', bring me just one more and then I got to go. He's got the cancer."
"Bummer," she said but didn't make any move to get up. "You wanna call me some time? I mean, I'd really like to go to Tunica."
"Great guy." He said then leaned forward on his elbows toward her. "Call you? Oh, hell yes." He shoved a ball point and paper napkin to her. "You like hot tubs?" He didn't have a hot tub, but imagined Claire's nice boobs bouncing around in the water.
"Cool." She had a whole lot of even, straight white teeth. "You got one?"
"Gonna get one." She left for the farmers and he finished the beer. She returned and asked if he wanted another and he said sure. "Got to go see Ray...he's in the hospital. Ray Wortman's the best man Shawnee County ever saw and..." He sounded like a damned fool. He gave her a two-dollar tip, she patted his arm and said she was sorry. Ray was in the hospital. Heath played Travis Tritt. Ten feet tall and Bulletproof. Merle patted his foot, waiting for Claire's return. When she came back to the booth, he said, "You like Willie?" and fished in his jeans for coins and tipped her another dollar.
"Heath was right, Merle." She knew his name. "You're a player." He watched her hips as she walked to the juke and sighed big, waiting for the mist to clear from his eyes.

Harry Albert Haines