By Alyssa Knickerbocker
Every story I have about this is like the beginning of a bad joke.
A guy walks into a bar and says, Can I show you a magic trick? Sure, I say, show me a magic trick. I’m twenty two and he is twice that, at least. He leans in and kisses me. That’s the magic trick.
A guy walks into a bar and comes right up to me and lifts up his shirt and there’s a bouquet of flowers stuck in the waistband of his pants. They’re yellow and white—pretty, actually. Behind them, a whorl of hair on his bare stomach. The combination—flowers, stomach hair—is particularly stunning.
A guy walks into a bar and says, Oh, thank God, I’ve been looking all over for you! I’ve never seen him before in my life.
A guy walks into a bar and up to the pool table where I’m sinking the eight ball; he puts two quarters under the rail. I know him, but not well. While I’m racking the balls, he says, Let’s bet. If you win, I pay your tab. If I win, you sleep with me.
If it sounds like I spent most of my twenties in bars, well, I did.
A guys walks into a bar and comes up to me with something in his hand. He’s tall, big, half muscle and half soft. He has the look of a construction worker who drinks a lot of beer. This turns out to be exactly what he is. He has on a baseball cap and his long hair is pulled through the opening in the back. It flows down his back, dirty blonde and wavy, jarring alongside his five o’clock shadow. He holds his hand out to me and flattens it. Wanna screw? he says. There is a screw in the middle of his palm—literally, a screw. Small, ordinary, metal. He says it again. At first I think it’s a joke, but he’s serious and loud. Wanna screw? People look over. People stop throwing their darts and turn around.
The question at this point is, what happens next? What’s the rest of the joke?
What happens next is this: a guy walks into a bar and says, Can I show you a magic trick? and I say Sure, and when he kisses me I stand very still, shocked, hanging onto my beer, looking around with my eyes for my friends, waiting for them to notice and freak out and do something. Freak out! I think. Do something! A guy walks into a bar and lifts up his shirt and there’s a bouquet of flowers in the waistband of his pants; I burst out laughing and he bristles, offended. A guy walks into a bar and cries, I’ve been looking everywhere for you! but I’m a little older now and I say Oh give me a fucking break, and I turn my back on him, the classic bitch. A guy walks into a bar and says, Let’s bet. He says: If you win, I pay your tab, if I win, you sleep with me. I’m a little older now but I still have all the common sense of a rock or a tomato or a mayfly; I say OK, thinking I’m being bold, thinking I’m really living, and we shake on it, and when I lose, I wait like a penny for him to pick me up, and he does. The bar is the same bar in every version, it’s a bar on a rainy island in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of nowhere. The bartender is a guy named Mike. He’s football coach huge, wears Hawaiian shirts, and sings Jimmy Buffet songs in a smooth, fat-man’s baritone at every karaoke night. He does magic tricks on the bar, magic tricks that don’t involve kissing unsuspecting girls, real tricks involving cards and disappearing quarters and pencils that repair themselves. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t need to shout to terrify you. He calls me by my last name and compliments me on my ass and I don’t mind, like a child I enjoy the attention. I’m not a local, not really; I’m temporary, seasonal, just passing through, like all the tourists and the camp counselors and the hippies who think they want to be farmers, but Mike talks to me like I’m a real islander, like I belong. So when a guy walks in and says, Wanna screw? Mike hears him from across the bar and says Buddy, not a chance in hell. He gets out the baseball bat that he keeps under the bar and starts lumbering over and like that (snap!) the guy and his screw and his long blonde hair are gone. And I think, This might be the middle of nowhere but who cares, maybe I’ll just stay here forever, on this island, where Mike can compliment my ass and pull quarters out of my ear and chase men away with his baseball bat like some kind of fairy-tale father. But on Halloween Mike has a heart attack and dies. We hear about it immediately, me and the other girls whose asses Mike liked; we go back to the bar the minute it reopens with his ex-wife standing there instead of him, pulling the taps. We drink a million beers and put Bonnie Raitt on the jukebox; we lie on the floor and sing along and mourn him, and while we’re lying there a guy walks into the bar.
Alyssa Knickerbocker is the author of a novella, Your Rightful Home (Nouvella Books). She currently holds the Halls Emerging Artist Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also received her MFA, and was the Axton Fellow in Fiction at the University of Louisville. Her fiction has appeared most recently in American Short Fiction, The Carolina Quarterly, The Bat City Review, Brooklyn Magazine, and The Best of the West 2011: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri. She has also produced one child.