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Short story: <i> Billy and the medicine-man</i>



The medicine-man sat at the bar, with a tattoo that swelled over the bridge of his nose and wandered over his cheeks like tears, pooling down in the dips and hollows of his neck under his ears.

He looked down into his whiskey and waited. His whiskey glass was smudged and cloudy, with an exclamation mark of grime running around the rim. A small spider died happy in his glass. At the other end of the room he heard the clinking of spurs and the dull thud of pointed toes and stacked heels falling deliberately through the dusty floorboards, angering the demons that slept in the cursed earth under the building—if you believe all that shit about demons, which the medicine-man didn’t. The medicine man raised the whispery grey lids of his eyes, revealing a network of bloodshot rivers flowing over his whites. He looked up through his hair, and tapped his long fingernails dully on the tacky bar. He looked back down at the spider. He waited for Billy to stop.

The tips of Billy’s boots walked into the medicine-man’s line of sight. There was a wet thud as a wad of tobacco landed next to an empty stool. The medicine-man slowly walked his eyes up Billy’s dirty cracked black riding boots with the tarnished gold tips and heels, and the jangly broken spurs caked in mud. Up Billy’s skinny pale legs shrouded in filthy, faded-black jeans, stiff with the memories of thousands of spills. Up Billy’s stained torso, yellow and greasy with whiskey and nicotine, with small patches of fish belly white. Up Billy’s skinny, black-ringed neck with its whispy soft hairs. Up to Billy’s gold tooth displayed obscenely like a whore’s garter belt in a table dance. A toothpick stuck out of one corner of Billy’s mouth. Out of the other corner snaked a string of dark tobacco juice running out into the crevices in Billy’s skin, snaking down to the cleft of his chin. The medicine-man dropped his eyes, shifted slightly on his seat so his back was turned to Billy, and picked up his whiskey and spider, with his shoulders hunched like an old crone.

The bartender, Desmond, lumbered up to the bar, sucking in his bottom lip to show off his cavernous mouth through the gaps where his teeth used to be. His stubbly head tilted to one side. The fat rolled around his neck like donuts, glistening with sweaty sugar. His earring brushed against the top donut. He grinned obscenely at Billy. Billy stared at the bartender. “Gimmie a whiskey” rasped Billy. “And some jerky for the old man.”

The medicine-man stared back at his whiskey. The spider was gone, and there was a clean patch on the lip of the glass. The medicine-man licked his lips. They felt tacky like the surface of the bar. “I don’t have the hunger.” He whispered through his dry mouth. “I don’t feel it no more. Just the thirst.”

Billy slipped up closer to the medicine-man. “Well man, I need a favour, and I want to give you something in return. So what will it be?”

The medicine-man hunched lower down on his stool.

The bar went quiet. The only sound was the buzz of fluorescent lights overhead, and the dull pop of a bulb blowing in the chandelier in the hall. The chandelier had been fashioned in a mess of candle-holders, but instead resembled a fat black spider falling from the ceiling with its feet on fire. Not that the medicine-man looked around at the chandelier. His eyes were on his empty whiskey glass.

Billy looked round at the chandelier. “You gotta get the electrics fixed in this place Des.” He said. “It’s a fuckin’ electrical hazard, the whole place could catch on fire.”

Nobody looked at Billy. The medicine-man drained the last drops from his whiskey glass and stood up, with his hair still hanging in his face and his shoulders still hunched like a crone. Without a word he picked up the sticky keys to his truck off the bar, scraping his long fingernails along the cheap wooden surface. The tops of his nails were black with dirt. He walked stiffly towards the doorway, down complaining wooden stairs and out into the dusty parking lot. He turned and looked back at the bar. A red neon sign struggling to say “De mon ’s Place” flickered, lighting up the red earth, low scrub and trash close by. There was a humming sound, and a crackle. Electricity sparked on the pole out the front. Des’s bar went black. “De mon ’s Place” stopped lighting up the scrub. Something exploded inside the bar. There was a surge of light and burst of flames from the bar windows. The medicine-man turned away and used the light from the flames to guide his key into the lock of his truck door. The door creaked when he opened it, and a flake of rust fell off onto the asphalt. The faded panels of his Dodge pick-up glowed warmly in the crackling light. The medicine-man climbed up into the cab, pulled the choke out and fired the ignition. As he drove out of the parking lot onto the highway, he saw, in his rear-view mirror, a skinny scarecrow in spurs running out of the door to Desmond’s bar with his hair on fire, and the grotesque shadow of the spider chandelier looming down from behind him.

The medicine-man stomped on the accelerator. Just because he didn’t believe in that shit about demons doesn’t mean they weren’t after Billy.

This is the result of a thirty minute writing exercise. The only constrictions were the time limit and five randomly selected words from the dictionary. Today the words were: hunger, surge, medicine, scarecrow and candle-holder.

Image courtesy of ozjimbob.

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