I was the only one who ever backed Andy up. I was the only one who really stood up for the guy. Maybe that's the truth. Most everyone else I knew thought that Andy was an idiot. They thought that everything that came out of his mouth was trash. Most people couldn't stand Andy because of his tall tales and white lies. Still, I liked him. But that was before Jeff Tanner and his impossible right hook set me straight once and for all.
"Who's this goddamned Tanner?" I asked the boys at work, while we were loading trucks.
"He's the music critic for the local alternative paper," Bill answered.
"He has that shitty Ska band that plays Brewski's a lot," added Hank.
"I think I know him," I said.
Then we smoked in silence. We waved every now and then to the camera, letting those bosses and supervisors know we had their number, as much as they thought they had ours.
"So what happened?" I asked.
"Andy and Tanner were both at Lee's Tavern on Friday night, when out of nowhere Tanner tore across the bar and punched Andy square in his jaw." Bill shook his head. "Blood was everywhere and Andy got a big cut across his lip."
"Anybody care to ask this Tanner why he cracked good old Andy?" I asked.
"Andy's been going around telling everybody he slept with Tanner's girlfriend. He claimed he took Tanner's girl out back of Brewski's and laid her over top a couple of garbage cans," Bill said.
"Yeah," Hank added. "Except she denies it ever happened. Said Andy is telling lies again. I guess Tanner got fed up."
"But Andy's not lying," I said.
"Aw Joe, you always say that!" Bill shouted.
"It's true though. I was there. I saw Andy take a chick out back of the bar."
"Bullshit!" Bill said. "That could've been anyone."
"Maybe. But I'll bet I'm right."
"All the same," Hank said. "Andy has no right going around discussing this shit. He was almost asking for it."
"Andy has a loose mouth, but he sure as hell didn't deserve to get blindsided by that hack music critic," I said. "Someone should go and settle the score with Tanner. Someone should kick his ass and then show him how to write a good music review when they're done."
"Why don't you do it, Joe?" Hank asked.
"Get the hell out of here," I answered. "I think the idea is nuts. I'm too tired from this job to go and fight anyone."
"Pussy," Hank said.
"I'm a lover not a fighter."
"That's what I always say, Joe," Bill said. "No need to fight, babe."
I lit a cigarette. In my mouth it was crooked, like a pipe. I blew puffs of yellow smoke sideways into the air. The three of us got back to work, and life moved on slowly toward that blessed buzz of five o'clock. Then I went to visit Andy.
"Jesus!" I said when Andy opened the door.
The right side of his face was black and blue. His right eye was swollen shut. It looked like a purple egg with one roving pupil in its center. Andy's lips were black and crusted and ugly.
"You should've seen me yesterday," Andy said.
"Did you know it was coming?"
"Not a clue." Andy went to his fridge and got us both a beer. "I was sitting at the bar with Karl and Gene, when out of nowhere I felt a good strong smack on my right cheek. Then I was on the floor covered in my own blood."
"How'd you know it was, Tanner?"
"Everyone said so."
"We gotta do something!"
"What do you suggest we do?"
"We should follow Tanner home one night and double team him outside of his apartment, you know? We could knock him around real good, get him nice and bloody."
"I don't know. I never thought I was in the business of hurting anyone." Andy felt his face. "Plus Tanner and I go pretty far back. We have a lot of the same friends in common. It would be kind of hard for me to get away with it."
I shook my head. I understood. Andy was like everyone else. He was too chicken-shit to go through life alone, to make it happen without anyone else's blessing or advice. He needed his precious asshole friends. Andy needed the limp desire to maintain the status quo, even though it made absolutely no sense to be that way.
"Why don't I take care of Tanner?" I offered.
"You?" Andy laughed.
"But Joe, you're a lover not a fighter."
"Still, something has to be done."
"Can't do nothing," Andy said.
"I'm going to teach that hack critic who's the boss!"
"Do what you like."
"Bah!" I shouted, waving Andy off. I didn't get him. I got up to leave.
"Joe, don't leave all pissed off."
"To hell with you, Andy!" I answered, opening his front door.
"Okay. Then I guess you'll see," he said.
I stopped. "See what?"
"Jeff Tanner is no slouch."
I slammed the door when I left.
Two days later I found myself on the South Side in a blind and sickening state. I was carousing from bar to bar, working up a real good and solid anger. I shouted despicable things at women. I pissed on homes, on people's porches. What the hell did I care? I imagined each darkened and safe home belonged to Jeff Tanner. Each teary-eyed woman I'd insulted on the street was Tanner's pale-faced girlfriend.
Then I went in to Lee's Tavern. Tanner frequented the joint. I went there to find the bastard and have a rich and meaningful showdown once and for all. Tanner wasn't there when I arrived. The bar was packed full of faces I'd never seen before, a bad mix of nebbish intellectuals and pseudo-punk types. Behind the bar was that fat prick, Phil Donatello. He was cackling, scrubbing glasses, and telling jokes like the golden, jovial god of the nightlife. I took a seat at the bar. I was writhing in disgust.
"What can I do for you?" Donatello said.
"Gimme an Iron City Beer," I answered. "Tall draft. Just like Andy Costanzo had that night your pal, Tanner, suckered him."
Donatello said nothing. He grabbed a tall draft glass from underneath the bar and poured me a long, golden Iron City. I salivated at the sight of it.
"How much?" I asked.
"Call me a nice guy. I just like buying beers for the walking dead."
"Is that what I am?"
"Are you, Joe Weleski?"
"Then you're the walking dead."
"Fine by me," I answered. I shot my beer down.
"Is this one free, too?"
"Answer me this," I said, as Donatello poured my beer. "How do you know who I am?"
"Let's just say your pal, Andy Costanzo, got a big mouth. He was in here last night making friends with Tanner. They were talking about chicks and garage music. They got nice and drunk. It was kind of sweet the way those two re-connected. I guess that your name just came up during the course of the night. It sort of worked its way into their conversation."
"Son of a bitch," I said. "So Tanner is out to settle some score with me now?"
"You keep opening your mouth, he will be."
"Where is he?" I asked. I looked around at the ugly denizens of the moody joint. "Where's Tanner, and where's his ugly broad?"
"Keep it up, buddy," Donatello said.
I finished my beer. "Keep it up or what?"
"You got a big mouth," Donatello said. "You got a big mouth and no luck picking your friends."
"Go to hell," I muttered, walking away. It was the best I could some up with.
Then one night a knock came on my door. I'd been watching a reality television show, and wallowing in sorrow over the fact that I didn't have enough cash for a quart of beer. I almost called Andy and invited him over, until I let pride get the best of me. Plus I didn't want any visitors. I turned up the television to wait the intruder out.
No good. Whoever it was must've heard the damn idiot box. They refused to go away. The cursed knocking continued. It came harder and harder, until I got so angry I could burst. Finally I leapt from my dirty armchair, and stumbled a bit.
"Who is it?" I shouted.
The person on the other end said nothing. The indignity enraged me. I hobbled over to the door and opened it. Jeff Tanner was waiting on the other side. All I caught was his thick glasses and the mean swoop of his brown hair, before Tanner's right hook sent me crashing back through the doorway and onto the carpet. I heard the reality show crowd roar with excitement. The announcer boomed for a commercial. An SUV ad came on before I knew what had happened.
Then the blows came quicker. Tanner kneeled. He slapped me like a streetwalking bitch. He rose and kicked me. The whole horrid ordeal was over before the show even came back on. I lay in my own slowly trickling blood, clutching my sides.
"You remember this the next time you want to criticize my writing!" Tanner said, looming over me.
His voice quaked with rage. Tanner kicked me again just to make sure his point stuck. It did. And then he was gone. The prick was so exact. He even shut the door so that I could moan in privacy.
Slowly I rose from the floor and stood dazed in the same spot. My body was in tatters. My mind was wasted. What in the hell had I been thinking? I staggered over to the television and shut the son-of-a-bitch off. Then I made my way into the kitchen for a glass of water and an aspirin. I didn't know how to treat a beating, but a pain reliever seemed the right choice.
I had none. I checked everywhere. Nothing. Instead I found a wrinkled five-dollar bill in my couch cushion. Suddenly I felt better. I went into the bathroom to clean myself up a bit. I got dressed and put on my hat. I lit a cigarette and opened the front door. The acrid smell of my building's hallway infested my swollen nose. I was sure some bar was open on a Sunday night.
BIO: John Grochalski has been published in numerous print and online journals. He is the author of two books of poetry: The Noose Doesn't Get Any Looser After You Punch Out (Six Gallery Press 2008) and Glass City (Low Ghost 2010). Grochalski currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.