The Skytender
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Speed"
Originally featured on 02-09-2009
As part of our series "Bursting Into '09"

Barry wore a t-shirt that read, “Love ain’t always on time. But Barry is.” It was true.

When Barry’s son Kenny posed the question “What’s a workaholic?” Barry said, “What does it sound like? Does it sound like other words you know?”

Kenny was a smart boy. He was so smart he often doubted his answer to a question because, although in reality his answer was correct, it always seemed too simple to be an answer at all. Barry could tell by the way Kenny held his breath.

Barry never held his breath. Janice used to hold her breath when she didn’t like a question. When she did that, Barry never liked the answer that followed. Janice was gone.

Kenny’s jaw hitched like a tiny insect in a spider web. Barry did not encourage him, but silently waited; that would teach the boy to grow some confidence in his answers. It was not good to think about a thing too long. Barry wished he knew how to make every moment of indecision more painful.

Kenny said, wiping cornflake crumbs off his face, “Is it someone who likes working like I like peach chip ice cream? Like it like I’d eat it all day if I was allowed?”

Barry grinned one of his grins that always came before a nod. Kenny never observed his father to grin and nod at the same time, and was mystified to consider at what moment in time it changed from one to the other. Kenny always wondered if there was — was like had to be, by law of nature — a split second between the grin and the nod in which Barry was neither grinning nor nodding. He couldn’t help wondering about things like that.

“Imagine that,” Barry said before the grin faded. Barry was also nodding while he spoke, but the grin and nod still were separate. Kenny puzzled over the illegal triangle.

Kenny did not perceive himself as intelligent. Whatever traits adults noticed and misconstrued as intellect, kids did not make that mistake. To his peers, he was average.

“But Dad, I really would eat peach chip and whipped cream all day if you said I could. Tons of it. Wish I…” Kenny’s eyes inflated, much like diapers fill up. “You mean…”

There were moments when Barry was genuinely intimidated by the boy’s brightness.

“You wish you could work all the time, and if they said you could, you would?” Cornflake crumbs rematerialized on Kenny’s face.

Barry dabbed the cornflake debris away with the corner of his napkin, taking care that the coffee stain in the middle of the napkin did not make contact with the boy’s skin. “Who’s to give me permission? I’m a grownup, aren’t I?”

Kenny’s jaw again became a fly caught in a spider web. Sensing its predator arriving for the feast, it bobbed in static hysterics, inciting a rhythm, his cranium rotating in widening circles. The thought was too much to process, so he bottled it in a single word. One word possessing one syllable, spoken with enough weight and inflection to have been the caboose of a lengthy speech packed with deduced meanings. “Why?”

After graduating with a Bachelors of Science degree in Climate Studies, Barry began his career as a bartender. His next job was for the state. Barry was now self-employed.

Barry had been involved with the CLOUD Project, the product of which had successfully put an end to the third world war. When America announced to the enemy on April sixth that the next time it rained in a certain region, it would rain blood, the enemy assumed the statement to be of a metaphorical and antagonistic nature. On April ninth, when it rained in the specified region, the enemy discovered that the announcement was a literal statement of fact. America’s next announcement to the enemy was a direct threat: “As you’ve seen demonstrated, we have the technology to manipulate the chemical makeup of liquid released from the atmosphere, so as to mimic a substance of our choosing. If you do not retract all military forces and submit to our terms before the next occurrence of rain on your soil, umbrellas will be insufficient to protect you.”

After the war was won, Barry — finding that he missed being a bartender — meditated on a career change. The neighborhood priest suggested that he combine his two interests.

Barry’s independent business thrived.

For a starting price of twelve thousand dollars, he offered breweries the ability to rent out the sky, in a sense, as advertising space for their new release. The free sample would be announced on the news and on banners hanging from traffic lights at the intersections of busy thoroughfares throughout the major metropolitan area. When the downfall began, crowds of jubilant men and women of all ages took to the street in ponchos, held up their empty glasses, stuck out their tongues and made merriment. It built community.

Barry had control. Making it rain amber ales was easiest. Lagers were tricky, as they required processes to occur at consistent temperatures. His favorites were the dark brews. Stouts. Something about the sight of a waning moon behind a cityscape obscured by the mud colored fruits of inebriation falling onto streets and sidewalks awash in a ubiquitous explosion of white foam that buried cars’ front bumpers and made ladies’ skirts cling to the contours of their thighs made Barry feel as though he was in love.

The name of Barry’s company was What’s On Tap, INC.

Why?

Barry took a few breaths. “Remember when Lonnie traded you his chemistry set for your Speedway Triple Octane Dragon Breath 4X game?”

“I only traded it because the TV was broken and I couldn’t hook up…but the chemistry set was pretty cool. I mixed the red stuff and the clear stuff and made huge bubbles. Tried to drink it, but it tasted like tires. Kind of like what you do at your job?”

Barry shook his head. “Not the point. Remember what Lonnie promised you?”

Kenny’s face was free of cornflake matter. His mouth and chin looked older, sadder, without it. “He said I could come over and play it every weekend. He said we could put it in two-player mode and I could race the Turbo Fire Wagon and he could be the Big Wheel Crusher, and his uncle Chez would make us nachos, with like bomb hot sauce and cheddar cheese and beef in it.”

“And how long did that last?”

Kenny’s hand unconsciously stirred his mushy cornflakes with his spoon, gripped like a murder weapon. “I never went to Lonnie’s. He said he was grounded. Then he said uncle Chez dropped a toolbox on one of the game controllers and broke it, so he only had one controller. Then I asked if I could bring my controller and plug it in, and he said-”

“Was Lonnie telling you the truth? Was anything Lonnie said truthful?”

Kenny shook his head, looking down but still not aware that he was stirring the cereal. Even as a bite-sized nugget of sludge flew from the bowl and splattered on the wall.

“Why did Lonnie make excuses? Why did he invite you in the first place?”

“I dunno.”

“That’s exactly my point: who knows? It’s best not to think about.”

“Lonnie’s not my friend anymore.”

Barry gently clasped his hand over Kenny’s, stopping the spoon before it punched itself through the bottom of the bowl and dented the table. They joined eyes.

Barry said, “Imagine a world where nobody lets you down. A world where people keep their promises. A world bound by contractual agreements-”

“What’s contractual?”

“It means reliability, son. It means you never have to wonder what’s really going through people’s heads, what web of deceit they’re playing you for. A world where people. Are.” Barry’s teeth clenched as his volume rose. “Always.” His fist tightened around Kenny’s. The spoon scratched the bowl. “On.” The table rattled. “Time.”

Kenny smiled. The smile began in his eyelids and circled through every muscle in his body before the pressure had nowhere to go but his mouth. The concept was too exciting.

Happy, exciting thoughts always reached a zenith where the inevitable subject arose:

A suspended breath, followed by

“And mom…”

Barry stood up, took the bowl and brought it to the sink. He said with the water running, “Mom let us down.”

“Mom wasn’t on time?”

Barry turned off the faucet and stood hunched over the sink, with his back to Kenny. He said softly, “Mom was never on time.”

The forecast predicted rain late in the evening. Barry was nervous.

What’s On Tap, INC. was on the verge of expanding into the wine industry. Vineyards had always been reluctant to use his service, fearing that the exploitation would fly in the face of tradition, and that making it available to all classes of people loitering in the street with their mouths hanging open would devalue the product. It was just as well; from the laboratory end, wine was far more difficult to synthesize than beer. Most of Barry’s investors felt it was too ambitious (since Barry had no competitors, they generally advised him to play it safe and stick with what beverages he did best), except for his wealthiest investor who happened to be a connoisseur of fine wines.

Tonight it would rain Merlot.

Janice would be out their somewhere, with her new fling, probably. She would be twirling around in the middle of the road laughing, dancing ecstatically, holding her sandals high in the air, head tipped back, her tongue slurping the synthetic Merlot that pelted off her chin like the two-timing slut that she was. Then she would gaily wrap her arms around her boy-toy — some slick-haired lawyer or accountant, probably — fold her weight onto his shoulder and whisper in his ear De-fucking-licious. That was her phrase. That was the phrase that drove men to their knees. The way she said it, slurred, but with emphasis on each syllable, how it tickled the earlobe… Barry wondered if she would even think of him. He had told her about his dream, the ultimate challenge of making champagne fall from the heavens. Could Janice’s new jerk boyfriend moron studmuffin asshole son of a bitch make champagne fall from the heavens? Could he do that?

Barry knew what he would do after tucking Kenny into bed. He would stand in the backyard with his arms folded and wait for that first drop of merlot, soft jazz music emanating from the patio. Just one taste. He had spent weeks working overtime in the lab trying to get the formula right. He still wasn’t sure how it would taste. One taste.

One day Kenny would be old enough to appreciate atmospheric cocktails, or, as Barry’s colleagues referred to it, Beermosphere (although wordplay such as that was too immature and dorky even for Barry’s taste). One day Kenny would know the satisfaction a man feels after a productive fifteen-hour day at the office, the kind of productivity that entitles a working Joe to step outside and venture no further than the parking lot ere the sweet nectar of malt barley and hops greet his tongue. It was Barry’s gift to the world.

Wine and champagne be damned. Leave it for white-collar snobs. Barry liked beer.

He wanted to tell his son what it felt like to be thirty-four years old, sitting on that barstool waiting for Janice, who never showed. Waiting, watching the rain through the window, sparkles cushioning the air as they slowly descended onto the hoods of passing cars, prettily splattering to wash through the streets…waiting, drinking, looking at his watch…even though that morning she left you standing in your driveway in your underwear, confused and yelling and cursing and demanding answers to simple questions…questions so simple that he couldn’t quite remember what they were, sitting on that barstool, but remembering how she’d promised to meet him there in any case…staring out the window, waiting…and then that miraculous thing happens…it’s Sunday night, and right before you lift that glass to your lips, the miraculous thought hits: you can’t wait to go to work Monday morning.

An overwhelming thought. So sobering, so liberating, so true. In runs contrary to the way you’ve always viewed your life, prior to that Sunday night at the bar, in the rain.

Kenny would have that epiphany on his own some day. Of the many times in a man’s life when one learns and relearns who his true friends are, the very last time he will compute that realization is when he places work first. Marriage is a shitty career with no job security, no retirement fund and no inner sense of accomplishment. Innovations like beermosphere last forever. Coworkers keep their promises, and they always show up, and while the people you deal with in your personal life do the things they do for abstract reasons that get all tangled up when you try and rationalize them, coworkers serve their function for one reason, and that’s what makes this country great, goddammit. He couldn’t tell Kenny what he was thinking, so he blurted something about karma instead.

When Kenny posed the question, “what’s karma?” Barry said, “When beer is involved, we don’t call it karma. We call it beerma.”

There was no hesitance present in Kenny’s jaw when he said, “Dad, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

Before Barry took a taste of the sky, he held his breath. Just to see what it felt like.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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