Bewildering Stories

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The Zodiac Bar and Grill

by Helen Lloyd Montgomery

The Zodiac Bar and Grill sat empty on a lonely stretch of highway, its once lively facade now streaked with the grime of abandonment and neglect. Rusty tears had drip-dried over weathered paint; the faded sign that bore its name moaned lifelessly in the ceaseless plains wind. The words "bite me" slurred drunkenly through the dust on the cracked plate glass window, the only testament to any recent human attention and on the inside, a white marker board proclaimed Wine Marinated Chicken to have been the last meal served.

A tumbleweed flitted across the highway in fits and starts, the uneasy breeze urging it to hurry across the deserted parking lot. A skeletal shrub near the entrance to the once-popular restaurant snagged the errant weed, holding it captive. The restless wind sighed, tugging at it with feeble fingers, tweaking and pleading until the shrub relented and freed the tumbleweed to move on. It had nothing to lose by doing so. After all, there was a special scent in the air tonight.

Inside the bar, a subtle blue glow whoofed in the kitchen as the grill fired to life, licking spider webs and mouse droppings from the rack with bright tongues of flame. Lights flickered on; neon coughed, then hummed to life in vibrant tubes of color. In one corner the jukebox revved up to speed through the voice of a song that had last been silenced mid-note. Light and sound splashed the interior of the Zodiac and from the recesses of the kitchen, a jolly voice cried: "Let's get cooking! Company's coming!"

Bob Clayborn, known affectionately around the office as "Mr. Manly," pushed his chair back from the mahogany table, and stood. The three business men seated there followed suit, and they shook hands all around. Bob modestly lowered his eyes, straightening the lapels of his expensive Evan-Picone jacket as his three associates congratulated him warmly on his latest acquisition. Brandi, the corporate secretary, beamed adoringly at him. He returned her smile, a star glinting off his perfectly white teeth like he was the centerpiece of a toothpaste commercial. Raising an eyebrow, he stroked his firm jaw as she undulated over to cling to his arm, and he ran his free hand over his hair, smoothing the distinguished gray just above his ears. Later, he'd take her for a spin in his new red convertible two-seater. He envisioned the wind making free with her golden blonde tresses, the way he would soon be making free with her luscious, melon-ripe -

"You haven't heard a word I've said for the last thirty miles, have you?"

Clarisse Clayborn's shrill voice exploded Bob's daydream like a killer whale torpedoing into a shark, and he started guiltily.

"What? Why, yes, dear, I -"

"es, dear?' Yes, you haven't heard a word I've said for the last thirty miles?"

"Yes. No. I mean, yes, I-I heard you, dear." Panic welled up inside as Bob realized he didn't have a clue what his wife had been saying. "I - I heard everything you -"

"Then what did I say, hm? Tell me that. You sit there like a wart on a frog's rump when I've asked you the same question five times." She held up five perfectly manicured nails and Bob cringed, ducking his head as her voice grew even more shrill. "So if you've been listening to me, what did I ask you five times while your dull, insensitive mind was plodding along a million miles away?"

Clarisse's voice, oh, so familiar after twenty years of marriage, drew the whip yet another time across his soul. Bob dug a finger inside his shirt collar and tugged at his tie, trying to loosen the choke-hold it had on his throat as he groped blindly for a response.

"I - um, believe that you were asking me where I'd like to take you and your mother for dinner."

"Oh, that's beautiful. Just beautiful. And why, pray tell, would I ask you a stupid question like that, when I'd only get a stupid answer like... like Whopperville, or Sir Onion Ring? Do you think I'm stupid? Is that it?"

Flustered, Bob glanced timidly at his wife. Clarisse had more in common with a killer whale than her ability to ram helpless daydreams; she was also as big as one. She sat in the passenger seat of the mini-van with her butt overflowing the sides like bread dough swelling over the rim of a bowl too small to contain it. Red lipstick smeared across her pouty lips in a garish attempt to portray them in a way that would do justice to the size of her mouth, which snarled as she addressed him again.

"I said , do you think I'm stupid?"

Bob felt the nightmare that was his life slip sideways.

"No, dear, I really -"

"Humph. Mama warned me," she said, parroting the same tired old routine and patting her teased, lifeless hair. "I don't know how many times Mama said to me, larisse, you can do better than a mouse for a husband. You'll rue the day you marry that little toad.' And she was right. My mama was right. You've amounted to nothing - nothing at all, do you hear me? Nothing, in spite of my attempts to encourage you to go after promotions, pay raises - why, you haven't even been able to. . . ." Bob shuddered as the crocodile tears commenced flowing. "you haven't even been able to give my Mama the grandchild she so richly deserves. Oh, Mama, you were right, and now here I am trapped in a dull marriage with a worthless man who can't even so much as afford to take us out to eat more than once a week!"

Bob cringed, feeling his spine shrivel and he hunched in on himself as she snorted snot and rummaged through her oversized purse for a hanky. She whipped out one as lacy and delicate as the undergarments his imaginary Brandi would have been wearing, and daubed daintily at her eyes. The heavy layers of electric blue eye shadow and midnight black mascara began to run, etching gullies through her pancake makeup.

"Yes, dear," he managed to mumble, hoping she wouldn't notice, frightened that she would, and not even knowing whether or not a response was appropriate.

Turning off the faucet, Clarisse tucked the hanky back into her purse and pulled out a compact, dabbing powder over her cheeks.

"I honestly don't understand why you're so cruel to me," she said, sniffing. "Are you going to continue to treat me like this when Mama comes to live with us?"

Stunned by her statement, Bob could only gape speechlessly at his wife as cold fingers of sick dread clutched his stomach and squeezed hard. Louise Fletcher was as much of a terror as her only child, and even fatter. Dinner one night a week was all he could endure of the two of them together. Clarisse goaded endlessly while Louise, her head cheerleader, spurred her daughter on to greater and greater heights of ridicule. They tag-teamed against the one ounce of spirit he had left as if they knew it was there and were utterly determined to root it out and destroy it. Clarisse's pocketbook snapped shut.

"You're ignoring me again, Bob."

"Y-y-your mother's coming to l-l-l-"

"You stuttering dolt. Yes, Mama's coming to live with us. That's what I've been telling you for half an hour."

"But, honey, your mother -"

"Mama's getting old, Bob. She's nearly eighty. She shouldn't be living in that house all alone."

"Sh-she's only seventy, Clarisse, and she gets along just fine."

"She's seventy going on eighty. What if she were to fall, break her hip? What would happen to her then? She'd die, that's what. Do you want her to die?"

Just then Bob thought he'd prefer to keep that pleasure for himself.

"No, dear, of course not. "

"Then it's settled. We'll tell her tonight at dinner. She'll be perfectly comfortable in the spare room, and we'll move in whatever furnishings of hers that we can. It may seem a little crowded at first, but we'll adjust."

Numb with shock, Bob imagined the bloated horror his life would become, living with both Louise and Clarisse. Louise was getting hard of hearing, and kept the volume on her television at home turned to a yammering level that was comfortable to her. Loud as it was, it still wasn't loud enough to drown out the sound of their constant harping, harping, harping-

"What's that ahead? What's causing that glow?" said Clarisse.

Grateful for the diversion, Bob squinted at the zircon glow in the distance. The only thing that came to mind was the old bar and grill. This stretch of road had been abandoned when the state had put the new highway through, leaving the few businesses along it to wither and die as stores and shopping malls blossomed along the new interstate. The Zodiac had long been in disrepair, though, and he hadn't noticed any sign of refurbishment going on. Surely he would have noticed such a thing, as they drove this way weekly on their trek to take Mother Fletcher out to dinner.

"I-I believe that's the Zodiac, dear," he said falteringly.

"Why, I believe you're right for a change," said Clarisse. "It must have opened under new management."

Encouraged, Bob dared a response.

"I hardly see how they could have reopened it in a week, dear, the Zodiac. . . ."

"Well, obviously they have, stupid. Look at the way it's lit up! Are you blind?"

Bob wasn't blind, and as they drove closer, he could see that the Zodiac was indeed lit up like a neon lollipop. But for all the light, the glitter, the sparkle, Bob didn't see a single car in the parking lot.

"Looks like they're doing a booming business," said Clarisse. "Pull in, and let's check it out."

Bob looked stupidly at his wife.

"What do you mean, a booming business?"

Clarisse regarded him as if he were a despicable little bug.

"Well, just look at all the cars and people. Pull over, I said, and let's check it out."

Bob gulped, his throat suddenly dry as he stared dumbfounded at his wife.

"Now, Bob, before we pass it."

"Uh, yes dear." Bob put on his turn signal, pulling into the deserted parking lot carefully so as not to hit any of the cars or people that Clarisse apparently thought she saw.

For all the improbability of it, the Zodiac did seem to have been refurbished. The paint was new, the chrome sparkled, and the cracked front window had been replaced with glass that gleamed like fine crystal. Inside, the jukebox belted out a tune from the fifties, and through the door Bob could read the dinner menu on the white marker board. Tonight's special was Southern-Style Pig Pickin' with Sweet Potatoes, Baked Beans and Cole Slaw, all you could eat for $12.95.

"Oh, dinner sounds delicious! And look, Bob, they have a dance floor! You can dance with Mama and me. Won't that be fun?"

"You-you-you want to eat here, tonight?" Bob stammered.

"Of course, you nit!"

Clarisse opened the door to the mini-van and stuck one elephantine leg out. Twisting awkwardly in her seat, she snapped her fingers and held out her hand.

"Give me twenty dollars, Bob, I'll go in and save us a seat while you go get Mama."

"You're going to wait here?"

"Yes, I'm going to wait here and have a drink while you go get Mama." Clarisse snapped her fingers impatiently. "Twenty dollars, Bob, it won't break you."

Bob shifted in his seat and with a perplexed sigh, pulled his wallet from his hip pocket, handing his wife a twenty. She snatched it from him and grunting, heaved her bulk out of the van before turning to him with one more instruction.

"Now you hurry, Bob, I don't want to be left waiting in here forever for you two."

"Uh, yes dear," Bob murmured as she shut the car door on any further conversation. He watched her waddle around the front of the van, the evening breeze tugging anxiously at the hem of her tent dress as she moved ponderously up to the door of the Zodiac, pulled it open, and sure as the world, walked inside. She stood looking around for a moment, and then turned, smiling, and started speaking as if someone had approached her. Bob put the van in park, and leaving the engine idling, got out and peered hesitantly through the window at his wife.

Inside the Zodiac, Clarisse Clayborn talked and gestured around as she made her way to a table and plopped down in a chair. She picked up a menu and studied the back of it for a moment, then looked up sideways at thin air, her lips moving with words Bob had heard a thousand unchanging times.

"I believe I'll have a Margarita. Could you bring a pitcher?" She smiled brightly at an apparent response and folded her pudgy hands on the table, her head bobbing along in time to the beat of the music from the jukebox.

Clarisse looked up, a surprised expression on her face, and burst into a sunrise smile as she started talking again to no one. Beaming with pleasure, she held her hand up as if grasping hold of something and pulled herself out of her chair, and tittering like a schoolgirl, she kept hold of that something as she made her way to the dance floor.

"Is she going to dance?" Bob murmured aloud, with a nervous giggle.

It appeared that Clarisse certainly was going to dance. Still holding on to something Bob couldn't see, she turned to face it with a broad grin on her face, and started to jitterbug. Bob scratched his head, unsure what he should do.

Suddenly the smile faded from Clarisse's face, and her eyes widened. With a jerk, she turned loose of whatever it was she'd been holding and yanked her hand back, wiping the palm of it on her dress as if she'd handled filth. Her eyes grew even wider, and she stiffened, trembling all over. The trembling grew worse until she was fairly vibrating, her heavy jowls jiggling and her eyes so huge that Bob could see the whites around them. Clarisse glanced down at the dance floor and her mouth stretched into a silent scream. Bob looked at the floor too, and could see traceries of bluish-white lightning flickering just beneath the gleaming wax finish, like blood veins under the surface of skin.

Clarisse was jiggling so horridly now she could scarcely keep her balance. Stiff-legged, her arms flailing wildly, she skittered across the surface of the dance floor like a drop of cold water hitting the surface of a hot frying pan while the strange blue lightning veins pulsed and throbbed in time to the music. Her eyes bulged from their sockets and they were jiggling too, close to exploding from her head.

Bob emitted a strangled "urp!" as Clarisse lost all control and fell to the floor, her body jerking and twisting spastically, her tongue protruding from a mouth stretched so wide that every time she whipped her head in Bob's direction, he could see her tonsils. As the song on the jukebox faded to an end, Clarisse's body grew still, her eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling. Bob flicked a dry tongue over his lips as he recalled a line from an old movie: All hail Dorothy, the wicked witch is dead. Good old Clarisse had wandered out onto the dance floor of death, and had had a major coronary. Or something.

The lightning in the floor calmed, and the teased knot of hair on top of Clarisse's head scrunched as if in the grip of an invisible vise. Slowly her body began to move, as if something was tugging it, and Bob watched in astonished silence as his late wife's body slid across the dance floor and disappeared through the door into the kitchen. A few minutes later the smell of sizzling barbecue wafted to him on the breeze, and the jukebox burst into a new song.

"Well, I just don't understand why Clarisse couldn't come with you to pick me up," Mother Fletcher whined in a quavering voice. "What kind of simpleton are you, to go off and leave her alone in a bar?"

"Clarisse told me to, Mother Fletcher, she's saving us a table," Bob explained yet again with a quiet smile. "The place is really jumping, you'll see."

"Humph. This isn't some cheap dive you're taking us to, is it? I'll have you know I won't have my daughter treated that way. Clarisse deserved a lot better than you, and she's been a model wife, so this better not be some cheap dive."

"Clarisse was happy with the place, Mother Fletcher. I think you will be too."

Bob tuned out Louise Fletcher's nagging. He felt his spine straighten and he ran his fingers through the distinguished gray above his ears. Beyond the top of the next hill, he could see the living glow of the Zodiac, and somewhere beyond it, a daydream waited to become reality.

Copyright © 2003 by Helen Lloyd Montgomery