He hesitated only a second before stepping inside.
He didn’t know what he expected. Hostile rednecks gathered around the counter? The same men who’d insulted his father all those years ago, now grown old? He wasn’t sure, but his muscles were tensed as he walked through the door.
He needn’t have worried. The interior of the bar was neither threatening nor intimidating. It looked like a typical small-town tavern. Only a few patrons occupied the dimly lit room: a couple in a back booth, two uniformed sheriff’s deputies at a small table.
His old friend was seated at the front counter of the bar, next to an older man, and he called out Gregory’s name and happily waved him over.
“Hey,” Gregory said, walking up. He sat down on an adjacent stool. “Didn’t expect to find you here.”
“I’m here most days.” Paul grinned. “Where everybody knows my name.” He motioned to the bartender. “A beer for my friend here.”
Gregory shook his head. “No. Thanks. It’s a little early for me.”
“It’s ten o’clock!”
Gregory smiled. “Coffee,” he told the bartender.
Paul turned to the old man next to him, nodded in Gregory’s direction. “This is Gregory Tomasov, my best friend from . . . hell, kindergarten through high school. He just moved back to town.”
The man reached around, held out a weathered hand. “Howdy. I’m Odd Morrison.”
Gregory smiled. “That’s an odd name.”
“Never heard that one before,” the other man said dryly.
“Odd’s my right-hand man. Plumber, carpenter, brick-layer, carpet installer, and all-around fix-it dude.”
“I get it,” Gregory said. “He does odd jobs.”
“You’re a wit,” the old man said. He sipped his beer. “Or at least half a one.”
“He doesn’t take too kindly to people making fun of his name. Especially strangers.”
Gregory reddened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just . . .”
Both Paul and Odd burst out laughing.
“Same old Gregory,” Paul said. “Still afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings.” He clapped him on the back. “Insult Odd all you want. He doesn’t give a shit.”
“As long as I can do the same to you.”
The bartender brought over a cup of coffee. Gregory thanked him, and Paul held up a finger, said, “My tab.”
Gregory took a sip. Not bad for bar coffee. “That reminds me,” he said. “Shouldn’t you be working over at your coffeehouse?”
Paul waved his hand dismissively. “What do you think teenagers are for? Besides, the place is dead. The few customers we do have either show up before work or at lunchtime. The joint’s not exactly jumping midmorning.”
“What about nights, evenings?”
Paul shrugged. “So-so.”
Odd raised an eyebrow.
“All right. Business sucks.” He sighed. “You know, I was almost going to open up a health food store—”
“And a juice bar? Those are big in California, too.”
“No, just a health food store. But it was too depressing. I thought of the health stores I’d been in, and I realized that no one in there ever looked healthy. They were always either skinny, ugly weirdos or dying old people looking for last-chance miracle cures. Normal people just weren’t into health food.
people weren’t into health food. So I decided to try the café.” He shook his head. “I just thought it would be cooler than it turned out to be.”
“And more successful,” Odd pointed out.
“And more successful,” Paul agreed. He sipped his beer. “Let’s get off this subject. It depresses the shit out of me.”
“All right,” Gregory said. “What ever happened to Larry Hall?”
They talked about old times, old friends, what had happened to everyone and where they had gone. Most people had moved away. The few who hadn’t seemed to be walking country music clichés—unhappy underachievers with an extraordinarily high divorce rate. Many of their old schoolyard enemies had turned out to have miserable, unhappy lives, and they both chuckled over that.
“You know,” Paul said seriously, “friends come and go, but family’s always there.”
“You’ve sure changed your tune.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come on. Back in high school, when you couldn’t get a date to save your life, you used to tell me that girls come and go, but friends are forever.”
“I did not.”
“Did too. You’d been watching too many buddy movies or something. War movies. And you had this asshole idea that even if you eventually got married, your friends would be more important than your wife.”
“You a fag?” Odd asked, squinting up at him.
“All that male bonding crap is just Hollywood bullshit,” Odd said. “I’ve had a million friends, but I’ve only had one wife, and if I ever had a choice to make between the two, it would be a damn easy one. I may like my friends, but I love my wife.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Paul said.
Gregory grinned, shaking his head. “I can’t believe it. You finally grew up.”
Gregory chuckled, sipped his coffee. He felt good. He and Paul hadn’t hung out since high school, but there was none of the awkwardness between them that he would have expected. It was as though they’d picked up exactly where they’d left off all those years ago. They’d fallen into the old rhythms, the old patterns. They were comfortable with each other, perfectly at ease, and there was something nice about that.
“So how is Deanna?” Gregory asked.
“Still at her mom’s. I pick her up Thursday. I called and told her you were back, but to tell you the truth, she didn’t seem all that fired up to see you.”
“Tell her I’ve changed, too.”
Gregory motioned to the bartender for a refill. He glanced around the bar, saw neon beer signs, a few old mining photographs half hidden in the gloom, a dead jukebox and a Pac Man video game. In his mind, this place had always been demonized, the home of hate, an evil spot, and it was liberating to see that it was merely a typical small-town business, to recognize on an emotional level that his dread had been all self-induced and that none of the attributes he had ascribed to it existed anywhere outside of his mind. He finally understood what people meant when they talked about “a sense of closure.” The phrase had always smacked of pop psychology to him, and he’d dismissed the word “closure” as yet another trendy, meaningless buzzword, but it was apt in this instance. It felt as though an open wound had been healed, and it made him think you
go home again.
The bartender poured him another cup of coffee, and Gregory smiled his thanks. “You know,” he said to Paul, “I was thinking. You need some help at your café? I’d do it for free,” he added quickly. “You wouldn’t have to pay me a dime.”
Paul frowned. “You won the lottery and gave up your high-paying job to become . . . a waiter in McGuane? Are you drunk or are you just insane?”
“I don’t want to be a waiter. You have the only café in town, and I thought about all the ones back in California, and I figured I could help you out. You know, spruce it up, bring it up to California standards.”
“Do you have entertainment? Performers?”
Paul shook his head.
“There you go. That’d help draw people. I could help you book local singers. Or cowboy poets. Or, hell, maybe even some club acts that usually don’t even hit this part of the state.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
Gregory shrugged. “Call it an investment.” He smiled.
“Or the whim of a bored rich guy. Well, rich-for-McGuane guy.”
Paul nodded, looked over at Odd. “We
have entertainment. We could move back those chairs and tables on the east wall and you could put up a little stage . . .”
“I’d pay for the materials,” Gregory said. He nodded toward Odd. “And your time. We could get a decent lighting setup, a mike and a speaker system.”
The old man nodded. “It’s doable.”
“This has potential,” Paul admitted, and Gregory thought he detected a hint of excitement in his voice. “No place else in town has live entertainment.”
“Even if we just booked local talent, you’d get their friends and family coming in to watch. At the very least. Charge a two-item minimum, and voilà!”
“This could work. I might be saved from bankruptcy yet.” He grinned, held his hand out to Gregory, shook. “Deal!”
Gregory wanted to go immediately over to the café, but both Paul and Odd had beers in front of them, and neither one was in a hurry to leave. They talked excitedly of the specifics of renovation, the mechanics of outfitting the café with a performance area, and Odd borrowed a pen from the bartender and started writing figures down on a napkin.
After ten minutes of increasingly grandiose plans that made Gregory mention the fact that they should have a budget, a limit, Paul excused himself and headed off toward the bathroom at the rear of the bar.
Gregory and Odd sat for a moment in silence, sipping their respective drinks.
“You’ve lived here for a while, haven’t you?” Gregory asked.
“All my life.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know whatever became of the Megans, would you? The ones who used to own our place?”
“Did they move or—?”
“They’re dead,” the old man said.
Gregory stared at him and blinked.
“Bill Megan shot his family. Killed ’em all, then turned the gun on himself.”
Odd answered his next question before he even asked it. “In their bedrooms,” he said. “Murdered ’em while they slept.”
He needed alcohol after that.
He ordered one beer, then another, and finally finished off a third before stopping.
“You’re living in the old Megan place?” Paul said after he returned from the bathroom and Odd told him. He whistled. “Brave.”
“I didn’t know I was being brave. I didn’t know anything had happened.”
Odd looked disgusted. “Who sold you that house?” he asked. “No, let me guess. Call. Call Cartright.”
“It’s against Arizona law to sell a place without informing the buyer that there’s been a murder there, but Call’d sell his own sister to cannibals if there was a penny to be had, so it don’t surprise me none.” He squinted up at Gregory. “You could sue his ass, you know. Get out of the contract. You don’t want that house, you can—”
“No, we want it, all right.”
Paul frowned. “Why, in God’s name?”
“Well, for one thing, we’re all moved in, we just got settled. I don’t want to have to look around for another house, move again, and go through all that stress. Besides, I don’t believe in ghosts—”
“Who does?” Paul said. “But it’s just the thought that all that shit happened where your kids are sleeping, where your wife takes a bath, where you eat breakfast. Hell, I’d be thinking about it all the time. I’m not superstitious or anything, but that doesn’t mean I want to buy Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator and store my milk in it. It’s sick.”
Odd nodded. “Besides, that’s why the last people moved out. They
“I don’t know if it was their imagination or what, but the people said there were knocking sounds in the middle of the night. And voices. I don’t know whether it was real ghosts or just their own minds playing tricks on them, but whatever the cause, they couldn’t stay there.” He paused. “Sometimes the demons in your head are worse than anything outside.”
“We haven’t heard anything,” Gregory said.
He smiled. “Yet.”
“Just the same . . .”
“I’ll admit it’s not something I really wanted to hear. And I would’ve been much happier if no one had told me. But I’m not going to panic and pull up stakes and disrupt my entire life because of it. Hell, someone’s probably died in almost every old house.”
“Just the same . . .” Paul said.
“Well, keep it to yourself,” Odd suggested. “Don’t tell your family. That’s my advice. What they don’t know can’t hurt ’em.”
Gregory nodded and thought of his mother blessing the house before they could go in, cleansing it of evil spirits. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you’re right.”2
The Molokan church hosted a welcoming get-together, an end-of-the-summer barbecue with steak and shashlik. Gregory was mingling and talking with people he hadn’t seen in years—mostly the parents of childhood church friends, who seemed to be the only Russians who had not moved away. His mother was in heaven, the center of attention, laughing happily and talking loudly, more animated than Julia had ever seen her.
Julia herself felt slightly out of it. She smiled and chatted and pretended to be enjoying herself, but the truth was that she had never liked these sorts of functions, and the unwritten Molokan mandate that every shower, wedding, funeral, or party put on by or for a church member must be attended by everyone in the congregation had been one of the many things she had rebelled against. Even as a child, even in L.A., she had not enjoyed Molokan mixers, had always done her best to avoid them, and here in the boonies of Arizona, with people she didn’t know and with whom she had no intention of socializing, the chore as even less pleasant.
The kids were not having a great time, either. There were no other children or teenagers, and Sasha, Adam and Teo stuck together, hovering on the edge of the small churchyard, eating from paper plates, talking among themselves and gazing longingly out toward the freedom of the street. In addition to being old, everyone here was speaking in Russian, and Julia knew her son and daughters were bored and desperate to leave. Especially Sasha.
She understood how they felt—she felt it herself—but this afternoon was not for them, it was for Gregory’s mother, and the least they could do was be polite and put up with it. It would all be over in a few hours.