This story is by Wade Flaming and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Conner entered the sports bar, alone.
Scanning the restaurant, he saw groups sitting at tables and at the bar, all watching the football game on TV.
He saw Barb waving to him from behind the bar, and immediately knew where he was going to sit. Selecting a spot where the bar turned, he sat down, nodding at two guys fixated on the football game. They glanced over, nodded, and turned back to the game.
Conner sat at the bar, alone, just like he wanted.
But his isolation vanished when Barb came over with his drink. As she quickly folded a bev-nap and placed the drink in front of him, the nearest sports nut looked over and asked, “How’d she know what you wanted to drink?”
Conner smiled, “Barb and I are good friends.”
“Known each other for years,” laughed Barb. “Conner, this is Tommy, that’s Gavin.”
“You here to watch the game?” asked Tommy. “Because I can tell you already, if you’re rooting for this team,” he pointed at the jersey he was wearing, “it’s over.”
“Maybe they’ll turn it around,” said Gavin, on Tommy’s right, “They still have five minutes left.”
Tommy shook his head.
Conner took a sip of his drink.
“How’d you get that scar?” Tommy asked, looking at Conner’s right forearm. “Looks like you got branded or something.”
Conner’s heart sank. They weren’t going to leave him alone.
Gavin looked over as well, then asked, “Is it a religious thing? Looks like a cross. Or maybe an ‘X’?”
Barb chuckled. She knew what was coming, another explanation. She’d heard Conner’s back story about the scar many times. Oddly enough, every time he’d told it she had learned something new.
“You want the short version or the long?” asked Conner, praying the short version would suffice, though he knew it wouldn’t.
“What’s the short version?”
“It never stopped.”
“What never stopped?” asked Tommy.
“What is, or was, ‘it’?” asked Gavin.
“That’s part of the long version.”
“We have time, right Gavin?” said Tommy. “Game’s trashed. We’re still thirsty. Let’s get another beer.”
Gavin looked up. The team they both hated was celebrating victory.
“Told ya it was over,” Tommy said, turning back to Conner, “All right. Let’s hear the long version.”
“You ever been on a river boat? Like on the Mississippi? You know, the ones with the big paddles in the back or the side.”
“Nope,” said Tommy.
“Seen ‘em,” said Gavin. “Never been on one.”
“Does it matter?” said Tommy, looking at Conner.
“Then why’d you ask?”
“Just curious. Need to know how much context to put into the long version.”
“Is the river boat important?” asked Gavin.
“Not now. It will be later.”
Tommy snorted, “Then, why didn’t you wait until later to ask?” he glared at Conner, then at Gavin whose hand was on his arm, restraining him. He took a deep breath, released it in a sigh of exasperation, and said, “Skip it.”
“Okay. It’s just that river boats are on the Mississippi, and the long version is set in New Orleans. I wanted to ensure you properly understood the setting.”
“You DO know that the Mississippi river runs through New Orleans?” Conner added, noting their blank looks.
“Okay, yeah, yeah, good, got it,” answered Tommy. He had not in fact known that. He doubted Gavin had either, but this was getting tedious. He wished Conner would speed up.
“You ever ride a bike?” asked Conner.
Tommy threw his head back in despair. He wanted to hear the story, not answer questions. He took a drink of beer in an attempt to settle himself down.
Gavin said, “Yep, when I was a kid.”
“You remember how you shifted?” asked Conner. “First gear was always down. Then, you had to lift your toe for the rest of the gears.”
“Oh, I thought you meant a bicycle,” said Gavin. “No, never rode a motorcycle.”
“What,” said Tommy through gritted teeth, “does that got to do with the scar? Or New Orleans? Or the river boats?”
“It’s how I got to New Orleans, that’s all,” said Conner.
Tommy took another drink, grimly satisfied that Gavin now looked a bit impatient as well.
Barb was nearly apoplectic. It took all her strength to keep from laughing at the way Conner was leading these two on. She couldn’t miss this! The rest of the bar could wait.
Conner was enjoying the conversation. He knew he was frustrating his audience, but he couldn’t help himself. He’d intended to be alone, and they had interfered. They should suffer. Carefully he put his toe in the water.
“Ever been to a swamp? I mean ON a swamp. Like in a flat bottomed boat, something with a shallow draft, that sort of thing.”
Silently, both shook their heads, no.
“Went on one of those down there, by New Orleans. Quite something, especially if you’ve never been. When they show swamps on television you can’t feel the humidity, smell the aroma of decay or get wet. Kinda like the difference between watching the football game on TV and actually being there.”
“Did you see any gators?” asked Gavin, “I’ve heard those live in swamps.”
“Quite a few.”
“And. . . ?” came Tommy’s gruff voice, irritated that Gavin was making Conner take even longer.
“After the tour, they took us back downtown. My hotel was right next to the Mississippi River. Close to a Hard Rock Café too.”
“Wait,“ said Gavin, “the swamp and the gators had nothing to do with how you got the scar?”
“No, I was just-“
“Setting the context,” growled Tommy, bitterly. His vexation was palpable.
Barb burst out laughing. Conner was a genius.
“He’s making this a multi-beer explanation,” she said, wiping her eyes. “You want another?”
Their beers replenished, Conner continued the saga.
“The next day I took a riverboat ride. It’s a wide river you know, over a mile wide in some places. And muddy. Toxic, actually.”
“This boat ride is, of course, totally irrelevant to where it never stopped,” growsed Tommy to Gavin.
“No, no, it is very relevant,” said Conner.
Tommy jerked upright in surprise, “How?”
“Because,” Conner continued, “it was the bird.”
“The bird?” asked Tommy.
“What bird?” asked Gavin. “You’ve not mentioned a bird yet.”
“It was the bird,” said Conner soberly, “that never stopped.”
“Where was the bird? On the riverboat?” asked Tommy who, now that Conner was finally approaching the home stretch, was trying to expedite the conclusion.
“Excellent question!” responded Conner. “That bird, no doubt being thirsty, drank some of the toxic river water, then continued flying. It should have stopped.”
“Stopped?” asked Tommy.
“But it didn’t,” said Gavin.
“No, it continued to fly,” agreed Conner. “But if it had stopped, it wouldn’t have shat on me while I was on the upper deck of the riverboat,” he pointed at his arm. “That’s no ordinary bird-doo that caused that. No sir. That was toxic waste the bird had processed through its system and deposited on my arm, leaving the discoloration that burned the skin so that it looks like a scar.”
He eyed the two of them seriously, it was important they grasp the gravity of the situation.
“And the reason it happened, and the way it happened, was that the bird never stopped.”
Both Tommy and Gavin gaped.
“Stupid bird,” said Gavin thoughtfully. “Didn’t know enough to drink and not fly.”
In a daze, he and Tommy paid their tab and left.
“How did you come up with THAT explanation? I loved it!” Barb asked Conner, her eyes twinkling with amusement and delight.
“Well, it was fitting. I walked in here, intending to be alone. They didn’t let that happen so, I gave them the bird.”
“You’re crazy!” Barb giggled. “I don’t know how you come up with those stories! They actually believed it, you know.”
“I know,” Conner agreed, chuckling, “Some people will believe anything.”
Barb walked away, continuing to giggle. She’d heard Tommy’s explanations so many times she’d lost count. And never, absolutely never had she heard the one he’d told today!
She knew what looked like a scar on Conner’s forearm was actually a birthmark. She also knew she would never tire of hearing Conner’s explanations, each one different from the last. Doing that, she supposed, made it interesting for him as well.