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  • The Serpent
  • Wayne Karlin (bio)

If not for the sign in front of the gravel parking lot, the permanently sputtering and fly-specked neon Budweiser advertisement, and the Happy Hour sign behind the dirt-filmed glass of the window, the Rondezvous Bar and Lounge could be taken for the house of a heartbroken widower who no longer gives a damn: loose boards, green paint peeling off loose boards, a porch shaded by a sagging tin overhang, the roof shingles winged up here and there or missing in patches, with the underlying creosote sheets showing through like wounds. The sign always bothered me when I drove by the place, as if the misspelled French would confirm some redneck stereotype of the county to visitors. I once pulled in, had a beer, and mentioned the mistake in the spelling to the owner, Tom Delaney. Delaney, a three-hundred-pound man with a shaved head, Fu Manchu moustache, prison tattoos, and cigarette burn scars on hairy arms, had lowered his head, looked at me, and growled, "What are you, a Democrat?"

He gave me the same look as I came in now. He was wearing a black Harley Davidson t-shirt, sagging black jeans, and scuffed engineer boots. He wiped the bar counter with a rag that looked like it could have been used to wipe grease from his motorcycle, if he had had one. He didn't. Some of the tattoos that had been on his arms were gone also, replaced by the red burn and pucker of laser scars, defoliated patches in the pelt that covered his arms. The tattoos had included the shamrock symbols of the Aryan Brotherhood, but as it turned out, he'd never been in prison or owned a motorcycle. In fact, he drove a Subaru wagon and had bought the bar, apparently fulfilling the shape of some lifelong dream, after he'd sold an arts-and-crafts supply store his family had owned in PG county. When I'd gotten his background information from our sheriff, Russell Hallam, I'd felt disappointed: it turned out that both he and the bar were concepts themselves, like the '50s-style diners I'd see in Bethesda or Tyson's Corners or Annapolis, as if nothing of our time now on earth could be anything but shadows on the cave wall, legitimized only through older models.

Delaney's tattoos had gone after some actual Aryan brothers had seen them and given him a choice between erasure and amputation.

As far as I knew, though, none of the other clientele saw the bar or Delaney as anything more than they purported to be. I'd never told anyone what Hallam [End Page 78] had told me about Delaney, and as long as the Brotherhood didn't come around, he was a man content in his reinvention, at it for so long that he'd become it.

As soon as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I spotted Joleen Baird, sitting in a booth near the bathroom, a glass and a nearly empty pitcher of draft beer in front of her, her finger pushing thin wakes out of the net of foam on the scarred tabletop. She was the only customer, which, it being ten in the morning, was not surprising, though not always the case. She turned to me, and I saw her in the light of the Coors neon waterfall near the mirror. She looked lacquered. I don't mean drunk. I mean lacquered. As if someone had poured a gallon of lacquer over her head that had dried and encased her in a sheen. Her blonde hair sat like a helmet on her head, and her face—bright-red lipstick, penciled eyebrows, artificial lashes—looked as if a wax death mask had been fastened to it. Like the bar and Delaney, she'd become a painting of herself. Thinking that, I remembered how in middle school I'd tried to earnestly explain to her the correct the spelling of her name—some early marker, I suppose, of my journalistic predisposition. It should be j-o-l-e-n-e, I told her. Later, I found out that the...


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pp. 78-84
Launched on MUSE
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