Change is inevitable in this world and sometimes you have to roll with the punches.
But in the Gutter, sometimes you have to throw 'em.
But in the Gutter, sometimes you have to throw 'em.
Last Night at Mesca's by Liam Sweeny
Dusk on the picnic tables in front of Mesca’s Grill contained the blueprint of my heaven, should Saint Pete be passed out drunk when I’m in line. Jimmy had a Thermos full of corn whiskey. I had a beer from behind the counter. The breeze was balmy, and the sweat beading on my face cooled me as it soaked my collar.
“Sure you’re okay with this?” Jimmy asked.
I groaned as I stood up. “You gotta’ move on, I get it. Wish you’d let me buy the place myself.”
“Nothin’ but trouble, Tom.” Jimmy took a sip from the Thermos. His face twitched. “It ain’t like it used to be.”
“I remember you giving me my first job, cleanin’ out the grease traps and shitters.”
“I was tryin’ to get rid of ya’. You know that, right?” Jimmy chuckled. He was a caricature in granite, sleeves rolled up to reveal arms made better for felling trees than for slinging french fries from behind a Plexiglas window. He had a crooked nose from too many fights, and hard lines cracking his face. But sitting there, in front of Mesca’s, was a different Jimmy, like everything about him was eroding.
Tom cooled his throat with a swig of his Crow’s Beak Lager, a Harrison County favorite, brewed three towns over in Harleton. He cracked his knuckles.
“You’re really out of here, aren’t ya’?”
Jimmy took another sip. His face stayed stone this time. “Yeah, kid. Ain’t an animal out there too dumb to run when they smell the smoke.”
“Why did you go to Meyers for the money? This town would’ve fought to keep your place above water.”
Jimmy wrapped his arm around Tom.
“Ya’ know Mrs. Lyle?” He asked. Tom grunted that he did.
“Well, this is zipped, ‘tween you an’ me, but she’s been bringin’ the kids over every Saturday, all of ‘em dressed in their best, and they get a proper feed on.”
“That’s good, right?”
“I ain’t charged her in five years,” Jimmy said. “I can’t. Andy Lyle came to me askin’ for that job I gave you back in the day, grease and shit. And you know he was the plant foreman before the layoffs.”
“Man,” Tom said.
“It’s getting to the point where people are trying to pawn shit off to me for food. Little shit, granted, but it don’t pay the taxman, and the refrigerator repair guy isn’t in the mood to barter trinkets for man-hours … Don’t blame him.”
“But Meyers, Jimmy? You had to know that was going to go south.”
Jimmy laughed. “You know what the fucker of it is?”
“Harrison County got a state grant to buy up properties on 154 out of Marshall. Remember when they built the box stores down the road?” Tom nodded. “Yeah, then.” Jimmy put his eyes down the road.
“You wouldn’t sell, though.”
“Damn right I wouldn’t sell. Pops built the place, and they’d tear it down to put up a mini golf course. So I went to Meyers.”
“But Meyers is a shark. Ya’ had to know you’d never square with him.”
“Meyer came off smooth about it, talking about how we can work stuff out. I just thought he’d need me to rough up some guys here and there. But it turns out Meyers got in the soup right along with us. The layoffs didn’t create crime; they created an exodus to DFW. Now Meyers is tying up loose ends.”
Tom and Jimmy listened to a jet overhead, bound for Dallas, likely. Off to the left, the sun’s eye slow-winked its Blood Orange lid over visible miles of scrub brush and mountain cliffs usually reserved for West Texas. Tommy glanced at his and Jimmy’s trucks parked side-by-side in the front lot. He glanced back. So much of his life was annotated in knife carvings on the benches, phone calls at the payphone at the side entrance. Christ, he met his first-and-only wife at Mesca’s, wrote her number on a napkin, one of the few Mesca’s napkins that had the business name printed on them. Jimmy was his best man.
“So what are you gonna do?” Tommy said. “Go to DFW like everyone else?”
“Nah… Think I’m gonna’ go head down Austin way, ya’ know, when the dust settles. Maybe I’ll open up a small club.”
“Well, I guess that’s it, then.”
Jimmy got up, swaggered a bit as he headed for his truck. “Thanks, Tommy. I owe ya’. I’ll send word when I get settled in.” Jimmy tossed the keys over. “Grill yourself one last burger if you want. I’ll be at Tolliver’s in a half-hour, an’ I plan on passing out there.”
“Alright, Jimmy,” Tommy said. He watched Jimmy launch his pickup over the small bluff in front of Mesca’s, fish-tailing down 154.
Tommy patted his shirt pocket. Half a pack of cigarettes and a Zippo lighter. His car keys were in his jeans pocket. He hopped off the bench and hopped into his truck, pulling it in the back between an old out building and a weather-beaten garage. Once parked, he restored his place on the benches.
Harrison County was a desolate place when the sun went down. Not that cars and trucks didn’t occasionally drive by, but that with Mesca’s neons off, it was really easy to pass by unnoticed. The sound of children and teens, gearing up for their respective battles for the heart of the night, was gone, replaced by cicadas retaking the wild.
Tommy smoked five cigarettes, pocketed the butts. Jimmy was at Tolliver’s by now. It was about time to say goodbye to the center of his world. He walked to the back of his pickup and grabbed the ten-gallon can of gasoline. He lugged the can to the side entrance, and fumbled with the keys Jimmy gave him. Once he was inside, he had to admit that he would’ve liked to grill one last burger before the gasoline splashed over the counter.