10.3 / May & June 2015

The B&I

At night back then we would go to the B&I, a large discount department store with a fake, plywood circus tent built across the front of the building. We would be drunk, the four of us, and this was still early in the night, Will Wilson wanting to stop at the B&I on the way to some party, and he told me once that he’d gone to the B&I with his parents when he was a kid. It was hard for me to picture, because I’d gone to the B&I with my mom as a kid and there she’d buy me socks and underwear and cheap jeans for the start of the school year. But I couldn’t picture Will Wilson as a kid. In my mind he was always our age, seventeen but seeming older, the way he’d been driving his own car since he was thirteen and the way he got in fights with people so much older than us and the way he always could find girls.

Also there was his face, which was so hard and sharp and I couldn’t imagine how that had ever been the face of a child.

But he told me he’d gone to the B&I, which left me picturing Will Wilson with that same hard face walking the aisles like I had done. For me as a kid the B&I was like the circus, with the checkout counters stacked with bags of peanuts. An indoor carousel with two-minute rides. Coin-op bucking broncos made of hard, slick plastic. Coin-op convertible sports cars that riddled your back with bruises. Fire engines and space ships that scraped chunks of skin from your knees. And behind the games, in a small room with no sign, was Ivan the gorilla in a glassed-in cage. You could buy cheap boots at the B&I, take a ride on the carousel. You could suck in helium from balloons tied to the metal racks at the ends of every aisle and you could go to that glass wall and talk to Ivan in a high helium voice, tap on the glass till he turned from his TV and tap on the glass till he pounded on the window, pounded on his chest, pounded so hard that the floors and walls began to shake.

Coe, my friend, when he was drunk he liked to tap on the window again and again, laughing harder as Ivan bounced up and down in place and threw a tire at the window, then a chair, then his food, until finally he’d pound his head against the window.

Teddy, he’d pull lightly on Coe’s arm, saying, “Enough, Coe. Enough.” But Coe would keep on, his face pressed up to the glass, vibrating each time Ivan rammed his head right at Coe’s, and it’d go on till Will Wilson came over and he’d touch Coe on his arm, and then Coe would turn and leave and it’d be awhile before Ivan would finally turn away.

There was somewhere else to go and something else to do. There always was back then.

I noticed a small boy riding a coin-operated horse near the exit, the Lone Ranger theme playing, the scratchy music mixed with the gallop of a hundred hooves. And I stood for a moment, watching him. His mother glancing at me and she smiled at first but in a moment she turned away, not smiling, and I saw her put her hand on her purse, holding it close.

These were the days of fear and violence, when we broke into houses and stole cars we rode down Pearl Street at a hundred miles an hour, and I don’t remember any of the four of us ever stealing a purse, ever assaulting some woman, but I know now why that woman held her purse close. Know that we four smelled of violence, know we cared about no one except ourselves, know we enjoyed how we looked and smelled and how we could cause fear.

This was before the other three were killed. After that, I felt empty and alone. The fear I caused in others was more of a memory other people had. The way they would not look me in the eye. The way they talked about me when I walked into some room. But there was no pleasure in it for me anymore and I moved away as soon as I could.

But while we were still at the B&I, the three of them on the way through the parking lot to the car, I was still watching that boy on his horse, hanging onto its neck with both his small arms, the blue and white animal leaping forward in place, the boy floating up and down with the motion, his face carrying that nearly numb smile of quiet realization, the boy maybe right then waking up to the world, becoming conscious of his life, creating memories he’d one day view.

And the mother was standing in front of him, smiling at him and waving her hand. Saying, “Bye, bye,” she said. Saying, “Bye, bye. Bye, bye.”

Eric Barnes is the author of the novels Something Pretty, Something Beautiful from Outpost19 and Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, along with numerous short stories published inPrairie Schooner, The Literary Review, North American Review, Best American Mystery Stories, and other publications. More at www.ericbarnes.net.
10.3 / May & June 2015