Man walks into a bar. No, seriously. Walks straight up to the juke, slams in a pocketful of change and punches in what seems like a dozen Tom Waits songs back to back and apparently in chronological order of their release, because if you’re paying attention you can trace the progress of ruination in that broken chime voice. One of those real thin guys, all cave-chested like he’s been chain-smoking since he was nine, the little treelike twigs in his lungs already shriveled up and shut down, and he shambles over and slumps into the booth katty-corner to yours. Levon says, “Looks like he’s ready to pass out or die, one.”

You were watching out the plate-glass window when he wobbled up on that pathetic bicycle, the kind that makes you think of an old person with joints all loose and stiff at the same time, oxidized diarrhea-green paint job somebody knew was a mistake right after the spray can went empty. Y’all’ve seen this guy riding around town the past week, heard speculation as to where he came from, although no one’s actually conversed with him, far as you know. Shit-green bicycle is how he gets around, certainly no one’s seen him driving a car, no one’s seen a vehicle parked out in front of Mamie’s where you know for a fact he’s taken a room. Not often you see a grown man ride a bike everywhere, not in this town, not in this day and age. This is a town where bicycles are strictly for the entertainment of children, things found by the tree on Christmas morning, not the sole mode of transport for a grown man.

You’d taken note of his sober countenance when he dismounted—not drunk at that point, anyway; you don’t miss much. You elbow Levon when the stranger assaults the jukebox with his quarters. Levon grunts, already three sheets, no surprise, even with the evening young. You’re only slightly behind. But you’re sober enough you’re going to remember it all tomorrow, too bad for you. You’re planning to leave after one more shot, promised the wife, home for supper. She’s near had it, you haven’t told Levon, because— Pussy-whipped, he’d say—then he’d flash the shit-eating grin that’s been getting him laid but never married since junior high. Levon’s got these big square teeth and a wide mouth that splits his face in a way people—male and female both—take as welcoming, first time they see it. Girls always did and probably always will get all hot and juicy for bad boys, but nice girls with daddies in the picture, they don’t get hitched to men like Levon.

Old Slim’s sinking lower in the booth. Beer’s got to be turning warmish. No warning, Levon gets up, skirts the pool table in the center of the room and plops down like a dead weight opposite the stranger. Table legs scoot and wobble and the guy jostles out of whatever half sleep he’s managed amidst the racket of Friday night at Pickers’ Alley.

You can’t hear what’s said between the two, but you register Levon’s grin from across the room and see in Slim’s relieved face that—hook, line, sinker—he’s fallen for it like an ugly girl asked to dance. Stranger making a friend in a town like this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. The fellow picks up a mangy backpack and stands up, but Levon takes it from him and slings it over his own shoulder and leads him to your booth, stopping along to introduce him to Benny and some of the boys. Slim slides in opposite you and Levon sits down next to him and sticks three fingers up in the air, flashes three times, along with his white squares, at Deanne who lines up nine shots on the table before you even catch this new fellow’s name.

Above Waits’s growl Levon yells, “Billy Grundy!” and Slim tips his head towards you with a little half salute. The whiskey’s performing its highest function as social lubricant before long and that kind of banter that’s general and vague and way too personal all at once is gushing around the table and you try to remind yourself of your tendency to blab things you’ll later wish you hadn’t. You don’t know jack about Billy Grundy, whether he’s come to stay or passing through. Levon orders chasers and Billy says his gut’s busting and heads for the head.

That’s when Levon picks up the backpack and throws it at you and says, “Open it.”

You do, because you always do what Levon says, which is one of several consistent complaints your wife has, and you find there what is not unexpected. The cellophane pack of powdered mini-donuts, the thermos of cold thick joe, the Swiss Army knife, the bandanna, the wallet, which you throw across the table. Levon opens it.

“Wilson Graves,” he reads. “What else.”

You see it in the bottom of the pack, about the size of a pound of ground sirloin, wrapped in brown paper. You hand it over to Levon like it’s gold bullion from Fort Knox. He looks over his shoulder, makes a little tear in the corner of the wrapping, moistens a pinkie and takes a dip. Licks his finger. “Grade A,” he says.

“Who made you Top Narc?” you ask, but talking’s pointless. Levon’s disability check has turned him into a cop-show addict; he’s got it in his blood, ferreting out slimebuckets trying to spread their evil love in our town like a pestilence.

“That fat bastard over in Riverton always cuts his with cornstarch. I could identify it a mile away.” Levon’s pronouncement sucks the air out of the place and the bad feeling you’ve had in your belly since that man parked his shitty Schwinn outside nestles in like it’ll stay.

“Let’s just flush it,” you say.

“Last thing this town needs,” he snarls into his beer, like he’s sad to have to share the news with you. And who’s to argue?

Grundy-Graves comes back from the john, slides in, says, “Y’all Tom Waits fans?”

“Don’t you know it!” Levon flashes the grin. “Say, Billy, you hungry?”

“I was just planning to take one of them Pickers’ burgers home with me. Got an appointment with the television in Miss Mamie’s living room later on. That’s how exciting my life is!” Grundy-Graves is too enthusiastic.

“Now we can’t let you eat rotgut burgers when you’re visiting our town,” Levon tells him, “Isn’t that right?” He looks over at you for confirmation and you half expect him to wink. “What say we show Billy what a real steak dinner looks like?”

Before you know it you’re all three standing up, heading out the door to your truck. Maybe it’s your imagination but Benny and the guys playing pool seem to do a stop-motion thing then give a joint nod to you and Levon for what you are now almost certain your best friend is figuring to do. You walk over to the driver’s side but so does Levon and he says, “Here, let me drive,” and you hand him the keys. Grundy-Graves throws his mud-brown bicycle in the back of the truck and he climbs up in the middle between you and Levon.

He’s awfully trusting for a scumbag coke dealer, is what you’re thinking.

The Rolling Fork is high for May, a wetter than usual spring, and Old Slim Billy Wilson Grundy Graves is bouncing along happy between you and Levon, smiling into the dark of Lost Man Road. Levon parks the truck smack in the middle of the bridge and you all three get out and Levon puts an arm over the stranger’s shoulder and says, “This here’s where all of us hung out in high school, after the football game or whatever.”

“Those were the days,” Billy says. He’s almost got a twinkle in his eye, poor bastard, and you know he’s filling in memories he doesn’t own, like he was one of you.

“Hey, Billy, you ever bungy-jump?” Levon says it like it just occurred to him, and without waiting for an answer he’s rooting around the back of your truck. He pulls the rope bag out and starts shaking all the equipment out on the ground, the clamps, grabs, tiblocs, foot ascenders, descenders, crolls, karabiners. He pulls out the tree harness, the brand new one your boss just bought for the big elm job over at the city park, twenty sick elms that have to come down next week.

“That’s no play-toy, Levon.” You put I-don’t-mean-maybe in your voice, but he pays you no mind. Starts dressing Billy up.

“I’m not one for heights,” Billy Grundy-Graves says with a giggle that makes him sound like a ten-year-old girl, but he’s letting Levon suit him up. “This bungy? It don’t feel all that stretchy.” The whine in his voice for a second makes you not sorry for what Levon’s doing.

Levon says, “Oh, you can’t necessarily feel a difference, man, between bungy and plain old rope.” He’s pulling Billy’s dirty bandanna out of his pack, starts wrapping it around Grundy-Graves’s head.

“Wait a minute,” Billy says. “This part of it?”

“Shit yes, man! Makes the rush that much better! You can’t bungy without the blindfold,” Levon laughs deep and sincere like it’s something everybody ought to know. You help Billy up onto the railing, and you can feel the guy’s skinny calves twitching under his filthy jeans. Levon grabs a coil of heavy chain you keep in the back and wraps it around both Billy’s legs, then hooks it onto the back of the harness. Billy’s soft whimpering reminds you of an old rabid dog you once watched your daddy shoot.


You want to look at Levon’s face and see a piece of remorse, or something like it, behind the unflickering eyes. When you do finally look, his mouth seems lower in his face than it was just a day or two ago. Lips set like concrete slabs. The two of you sit on the side of the bridge, waiting, dangling your legs like when you were squirts. Levon strikes a match across the scabbed iron rail and lets it fall toward the water, momentarily providing a swath of dim light. After a reasonable amount of time, you both drag on the tree rope. The shrimpy carcass is light, might weigh one twenty, one thirty at the most.

You pull the spanking new tree harness off Billy’s skinny wet butt.

“This equipment goddamn better be dry come Monday morning seven in the a.m.,” you mutter while Levon unsnarls the chain. Levon cradles the body in his arms and lifts it up like a sacrifice to a vengeful god, then lets it tumble back over the railing. He pulls the bicycle from the truck and gives the frame three or four powerful kicks, slams it into the bridge abutment. Streaks of shit-green scribble across the concrete.

“Police believe the deceased struck the abutment with his bicycle while driving intoxicated some time early Saturday,” Levon intones in the melodious announcer voice that usually cracks you up. He gives the backpack over to the dark with his good left arm. The splash is distant, weak.

It’s raining hard now and the Rolling Fork is creeping out of its banks. The bicycle folds into the churning water like walnuts in chocolate cake batter and you’d give an arm or an eyeball, almost anything to crawl home and slide between the sheets next to the warm body of your wife, even if she’s too pissed off to acknowledge that you’ve come back. You’ll sit across the breakfast table tomorrow morning and when the moment is right you’ll stroke her forearm with one finger and you’ll say, “We’re good, aren’t we, Baby?”