"With the dragon eyes that overlook the bay
There's a layer below the city
Where the bottom dwellers go
Trying to buy that thrill they've never known."
"Ohhh Earl my friend, looks like the oil is hot and the people are pouring in!" John Pope was in a good mood. It was Friday night, revered in these parts for a good time especially at a place that not only served freshly caught fish but cheap liqour and beer, and plenty of both. The townies came like townies would, and Friday being payday, well, John Pope was feeling fine.
"Boss, it looks like a busy night." Earl, a former wrestler and manager of The Nest was a formidable looking man with countless tattoos and a calm demeanour, unlike his boss, the small but strong long haired man in front of him. He had been with Pope (as he preferred to be called since John was the name of a religious holy man or a toilet, Pope said) for 6 years now, and in those 6 years had saved Pope from himself many times. He poured a beer from the tap and put it, contents frothing out the top and over the rim, on one of the server's trays.
"I need to turn up the jukebox!" Pope sashayed around the milling people with the eloquence of a ballet dancer. He was a force, though, an engine that drove the car of The Nest. He had that much dangerous charisma and took nothing from anybody. Pope pushed the machine out enough to snake his hand in for the volume control and "Beast of Burden" ratcheted up from the multilight machine. Singing along, Pope pushed back through the crowds and then spied a friend, alone, at one of the back tables. He glided over to him, pulled out the chair across from the man and sat down.
The bald man with brown rimmed glasses didn't look up. He was eating methodically, dipping his fish in a rich vat of tarter sauce and wiping his hands on his napkin. "Pope."
"Really?" Walter finally looked up, his dark eyes revealing nothing behind the lenses he wore. Not classically handsome, the man had some magnetism about him. Pope grinned wolfishly.
"Gonna tell me about it?"
"Why should I?" came the answer. Pope tapped his foot impatiently then grabbed for Walter's arm but the big man was quicker and moved back. He half stood, a menacing figure that radiated keep away. "I am not going to explain what happened, Pope. Not to you, not to anyone. It's not like I know much anyways. And I won't play your game. Capiche?"
Pope thought quickly. Walter had kicked his ass before, resulting in some nasty bruises that had taken a while to heal. Plus, the government agent didn't look like he was in a good mood. Pope backed up, running into someone behind him, hands up in mock surrender. "Ok ok, calm down. Enjoy the food. Have a beer on me." He called out to Earl who was still behind the bar. "This gentleman gets on the house tonight!" Earl nodded and Walter sighed. He was sitting down again.
"You always have to make things a three ring circus don't you, John?" Walter went back to eating, dismissing Pope and pretending their exchange didn't happen.
That stuck in Pope's craw. He thought Walter and him were friends, or at least, amiable cohorts. And after the discovery in the big woods, when they had joined together out of necessity (the bar owner and the G man, Pople thought, what a combo) to get out alive, they had a history. He scowled and returned to the bar, not feeling as bright as he had 5 minutes ago.
Noah took a deep breath and looked at himself in the mirror of the Jeep. He hadn't had another panic attack in 3 days and he had actually been sleeping better lately. Tonight, he would join in on the ritual of Fish Fry Friday, weighing Kaner's advice to his desire to know a bit more about the town and its inhabitants. He slid out of the Jeep and pressed the lock button, the muted honk sounding loud to his ears. The Nest was brightly ablaze with neon, from the beer signs to the entrance sign and it looked glaringly out of place in the peaceful night of Wolf Run. "No better time than the present," Noah whispered. He took a deep breath and walked inside where the noise of a thousand jet engines greeted him all buoyed by the current of Steve Miller's The Joker. He smelled sweat, beer, perfume, wood, and fish. And every last table was occupied. Perhaps, then, a seat at the bar. Noah approached the long wooden bar with the old stools, swivel style and metallic, lined up in front. There were 3 empty stools, so Noah chose one towards the closest wall, and folded his hands on the wooden surface, waiting for the sweating bald guy with the tats to take his order.
"Noah Wyle?" Noah turned using the swivel stool. The bar had gone on mute it seemed. Every eye was staring in his direction. "Pope." The man addressing him stuck his hand out and Noah accepted it, shaking it warily. How many silver rings did this guy think was fashionable, Noah thought fleetingly, then focused on the here and now.
"Ah, you are the infamous Pope." Noah grinned but it was not returned so he faltered and swallowed.
"Now who told you that?" Pope's eyes narrowed. He looked dangerous and in fact, Noah could see him being in a mug shot, with profile and head on photos, probably arrested for some heinous crime.
"I got a tour of the town. And I heard your fish fry was good." Noah kept his voice light and even. "Said so in the paper."
For a minute, Noah thought the man was going to hit him, but suddenly, he threw back his head and laughed. "And people told me that nobody reads that rag any more!" He slapped Noah on the back--a bit harder than usual if truth be told-- and gestured to the bar. "Mi casa es su casa. Drink up. Eat some fish! Enjoy!" And with that, he disappeared into the crowd like a disciple welcomed by his flock. Noah felt relief course through him. He would eat, then leave. Game plan.
"You handled that well."
It was a night of surprises. Noah saw John slip onto the stool next to him and prop his elbows up on the counter. "He didn't punch you."
"No...." Noah pinched the bridge of his nose. "Guess I got lucky."
"Pope is....not as bad as his bark. He's really just another character in this town. Once he knows he can't rattle you he'll leave you alone." John nodded to Earl who poured the young man a beer and pushed it in front of him.
"You aren't old enough to drink that, are you?" Noah thought the boy was maybe 20 give or take a year. John laughed and punched Noah's thigh playfully.
"In one more year, but ya know, it's Friday night and I'm a townie. Not like Sheriff will arrest me anyways." John sipped at it then made a face. "Though I'm not entirely sure if it's worth it. This beer is awful."
Noah took a sip and made a face. "Yeah, this tastes like....river swill..."
"Or worse." John stood up and straightened up, standing on his tip toes. "I see a table. In the back. Come on."
"Your Mom isn't coming?" Noah asked, following the small figure of his new friend as he darted around tables.
John half turned and grinned. At that moment, Noah was struck by how boyish he was. "She hates fish!" he called back. Noah followed, the people sometimes begrudgingly moving aside, and he felt a curious focus on him. Perhaps it was just his paranoia but he was the new kid in town so he supposed he'd have to buck it up. Somehow, John had led him back to an unoccupied table. Noah set John's beer on it and moved the folding chair back.
"You'd think Pope could afford to buy some new chairs!" Noah half shouted over My Shanara. He hadn't heard this song in a long time, not since Karaoke Thursdays at the Ramblin Rose, when Hannah and he would meet up with Matt Jenkins and his wife and kick back a few and howl out of tune. That was how long ago...
"You're thinking." John slapped Noah's hand, bringing the tall man back to the here and now. "Stop thinking so much. Just go with it."
"Easy for you to say!" Noah leaned next to John so he could be heard and saw a fleeting sense of disappointment cross the younger man's face. "This chair is gonna have my balls aching by the time we get our fish!"
"Oh my God!" John started laughing then, his almond eyes closed and the corners crinkling with amusement. He had a nice laugh, Noah thought. He was good company.
"Yeah. My fertile years. Wasted on a chair." Noah spied the server, who was cleaning off the table to his right. She saw his hopeful look and nodded.
"Two dinners?" She called out over the closing refrains of the song. Noah nodded. "Slaws and fries?" When Noah hesitated, John stood up and handed her a twenty.
"The works. Keep it."
"Thanks, kid." She put the money in her jean shorts pocket and vanished into the noisy crowd. John sat back down and folded his hands in front of him. He was regarding Noah with a mixture of curiousity and politeness.
"What?" Noah said, playing with the beer mug.
"I just wondered.....why you came here..." John leaned towards him. "Nobody interesting ever comes here. Yet, here you are."
"Interesting? Me? No. Not interesting." Noah started to sip the beer. It was cold and acrid and not really very good but it made him avoid John's gaze.
"What happened?" John insisted. Noah felt the facade crumbling, knew if he looked up he was liable to pour out his whole sad story and he wasn't ready for that, not here not with a kid half his age, a kid he hardly knew.
"File that under none of your business." Noah knew he sounded curt but right now, curtness was the only barrier between him and reliving that day in May, and he wasn't ready, no matter how many therapists said he was.
"Ah, I apologise then." John nodded and sat back, looking around the bar and remaining stoic. Noah knew he was hurt and felt badly, knew he should make things happy again but he was tired of trying to be happy and caring how other people felt. His wife was dead for Christs's sake. Why couldn't people just leave him alone? But there was no reason why he needed to be angry. John had asked. He had snapped and now he felt regretful.
"I'm sorry." Noah muttered, staring at the bubbles that floated lazily to the top of the beer foam. "That sounded mean. I just....can't.."
"My own nosiness. Sorry. I am direct sometimes." John smiled. He pointed to a couple by the bar, he in full cowboy regalia and she in jean shorts that would put Daisy Duke to shame. Still, she filled them out quite nicely. "Kaner and his wife kerri. She runs the hair salon."
Noah craned his neck and could now see the features on the man's face. Yes, it was his pal Kaner, and it looked like he was holding court not only with Kerri but a dozen or so other women, all dresssed in various degrees of tight shorts and low tops.
"I feel underdressed," John continued. "I own lots of snap backs but no cowboy hats."
"Um, what's a 'snap back'?" Noah leaned back, earlier tension dissapaited. John was more animated than he was used to. Just another service we provide around here, he thought.
"A hat...like..." John took off the one he was wearing and his hair felll around his forehead and face. "See...got the snaps in the back for adjustable."
"Ohhhhh." Noah nodded. "I feel like your father."
"Oh my God. Don't!!!" john laughed merrily. "You're not that old."
"How OLD do you think I am?" Noah waggled his eyebrows. The beer was disgusting. He was going to quit drinking it but right now it was a useful prop.
"Ummmm.....let's see....." John was holding up his hands like a camera, turning the pretend appliance this way and that, squinting and closing first one eye then the other. "35..no...38! Yep 38. Final answer!"
"Oh dear child, thank you." Noah pretended to pray to heaven and then reached across the table and took John's hat in his hands. "Oregon Ducks."
"My uni." John took a sip of their shared beer, then grimaced. "God, that's disgusting."
"I thought Kaner said you went to Seattle?"
"Naw, he always gets it wrong. I go to Univeristy of Oregon. Kaner thinks Portland and Seattle are interchangeable somehow. Poor guy. Oh here comes our dinners!"
The food was, Noah had to admit, tasty in a greasy salty kind of way. He ate gustily, as he had only eaten a small breakfast that morning before going out on his now daily hikes. The woods were full of trails and he reasoned he could not get lost. Perhaps he would buy a cycle and start to ride again. The roads were conducive for some good biking.
"What do you think?" John shouted above Modern Love by Bowie. Was it getting louder or was it Noah's imagination?
"Tasty!" Noah dipped the last piece of his fish into a very good (actually) tarter sauce and wiped his greasy lips with a napkin. "And I could not eat another bite."
"Too bad. My Mum made a pie." John finished the lone french fry he had on his plate and punched Noah's arm lightly. "I know what you're going to say. It's Friday so she should make molasses cookies. Well, we have no molasses so we have to wait for the truck to come on Monday."
"What kind of pie?" Noah thought about the Al American Dinor pie and shuddered. That was an abomination.
"Peach!" John arched his eyebrows and stacked his dishes. "Come on! At least try a little piece!"
Noah was torn. Peach pie, homemade, was something he hadn't had in a while. And good company. He thought that he should be sad and alone all the time, then debated wheter or not Hannah would want that. She wasn't the accusing voice in the back of his head. It was him. Survivor's guilt, someone called it once. Aptly put.
"You're thinking again!" John stood, hands on his hips, and slicked back his hair in preperation to don his snap back. "Come to the back door if you're up to it. If not, see ya around."
Noah watched him leave, his small frame devoured by more people crowding in. That was rude, he heard his Gramma say, shaking her finger and puffing away. Rude and uncalled for. Wallowing in guilt is not going to fix anything. She loved you, you loved her, end of story. Yes, but Gramma, she took the best of me to her grave. And I am all I have left.
"What d'ya think about the fish? Good eh?" A hand on his shoulder startled him and he whirled around only to see Pope sitting where John had sat. "It's all cod, good quality. I might take a hit on it once in a while but the cook puts enough salt on the batter to keep the beer flowing."
"Any good bar owner knows to serve salty appetizers," Noah agreed. His hands circled the mug of half drank beer and he wished desperately now he would have gone with John.
"SO what's your story, Berkely? Professor?" And Pope pronounced professor like Poor-fess-or, kind of derisive kind of unsavoury, mostly sarcastic.
"My story?" Noah repeated, trying to look blank and affable at the same time.
"Yeah, you know, everyone heard about Billy leaving his place to some upstart straight lace from the big city of El Lay. So that's you, right? Huh? Right?" Pope was looking wolfish. His close trimmed beard accentuated his strong jaw.
"I suppose it's me, yes." Noah nodded. He looked at his watch and suddenly, Pope was in ihis face, not mere inches from close contact.
"What? Am I BORING you, Professor? Not used to some talk with someone not good enough for you?"
"I never said that," Noah stated, trying to remain calm. What was with this guy? Maybe he shouldn't have come. Maybe he should have just stayed at home and--
Pope sat back down and smiled. "That's good. Cuz I would never want to be intentionally boring." Pope indicated the beer Noah was nursing. "You should have asked Earl for the bottled stuff. That's swill." He stood up and leaned down with his mouth so close to Noah's ear that when he talked, Noah could feel his breath. "Don't be a stranger. Some time you and me are going to have a sit down." And with that, he was gone as quickly as he appeared.
John sat in the silence of the two story frame house his mother had bought, sight unseen, when they had come to the States. Originally from Melbourne, he had always felt like an outsider there in this country close knit town. It wasn't until he went away to school that he blossomed and made many friends. He had also made Crew, Track and Field, and the Rugby team, his small but sturdy muscular frame useful in the scrums. When he came back in the summer time, he could tolerate it more and relax. And his Mum, God bless her, had made a go of it and had put some money away in the bank for when she could finally move to either Vancouver, where her sister lived now, or Toronto, where her Godparents lived. John supposed when she left he would find a good job in Portland, sports medicine being his major. Although vancouver was tempting.
He looked at the clock and wondered if Noah was going to show. It had been 20 minutes since he had left the bar, walking out away from the mayhem and smoke and laughter to the relative quiet of the street. Maybe he had been too bold with the man. Maybe he should have just let it go, and not extend the invitation. But it hurt him to see the man so broken and so closed off. And it was in John's gregarious nature that he had to FIX people. His friends, his Mum, himself.... He got up and straightened up the counter, putting the bread away and wiping the non existant crumbs off the surface. Naw, he wasn't coming. And it was no fun eating pie himself. Reluctantly, John put the pie away and then went to his room, ear buds in his ears and hope dashed.
The next morning dawned humid and hot. Noah awoke with a start, finding the sheets twisted around him and his pillow on the floor. "Was it good for you? Cuz it was good for me." He chuckled and got up, swinging his feet on to the planked floor of the bedroom. He thought he should maybe go into Winthrop, stop at the hardware and get either an ac unit or a fan or both. He had read where Oregon summers could be hot and sticky. And he needed milk and possibly more fresh fruit. That would mean a trip to the grocery, although he could go to to the Food Giant he had seen just before he hit Winthrop. If he went to the Run's grocer, he would have to see John, and since he did not stop in for a piece of pie, he was sure John would be a bit pissy with him. Although...why should it matter? Truly, he was only there for the summer. He didn't have to get close to anyone. When the summer was done, he could go back and resume teaching at Berkely. Wasn't he here because of his therapists' recommendations? All of them had said he should get away and find himself. He wasn't sure when he had become lost but he figured it was that day in May.
Food Giant it was then. Noah stocked up again and then wheeled his Jeep into the Tru Value Hardware in Winthrop. The building was a low cement structure with an assortment of pick up trucks parked in the lot around it. Noah felt a bit out of place. He did not own a pair of cowboy boots or a big metal belt buckle and he had no plans in the future to purchase either of them. Within 15 minutes, he was the proud owner of both AC unit and a powerful 3 way floor fan. The place even accepted credit cards! Now he was all set for whatever the summer threw at him. "Take that, Wolf Run!" he murmured.
By the time he had the AC unit installed (and thank the gods that Billy had the foresight to get the wiring replaced at some point) Noah was sweaty and grimy. He had had to pry the window open and then clean it well, and just the exertion on the humid day was enough to leave his t shirt wet in places and clinging to his body. The fan was easy--he placed it between the kitchen and the living room and turned it on, dissapaiting the heat in the small rooms. Feeling satisfied, he decided to peel off his shirt and sit on the deck.
John wheeled his bike along the 2 lane road running from the Run towards Winthrop. It was bloody hot and his mother had insisted that he place the cookies in a cooler so they would not melt by the time they got to John's new friend, the man from California. Not that John had asked his mother to pamper the man or anything. OK. that was a bit of a lie. John thought Noah was perhaps the most interesting man he had ever met and he wanted to get to know him.
Ahead was the split so John steered his bike to the right then immediately turned off on Noah's road, the one that would lead him to the water and the man's cottage. He parked his bike next to a tree and looked around the property. The cottage was small and clapboard, in the style that was functional in any house next to the river. There was a small porch leading to the front door and John nimbly flew up the 3 stairs and knocked lightly on the door. He waited, hoping that he would not be turned away, hearing his own heart beat in his ears. "Hello? Noah? You there?"
Something....he could only describe as a compulsion...led him around back of the cottage. He held the cooler with one hand, strap looped around his wrist, and what he saw would remain with him for the rest of his days. John knew he had to act and act immediately.