“The Head of John the Baptist”

(Excerpted from  In Measured Steps by John Fite Rebrovick.)

Right at seven Rob opened the glass door, stepping from the fresh late-autumn air into the smoky body heat of The Stampede. He could see that Butch was not in the pinball room to the right, so he turned toward the first room to the left, the one which had a small bar against the back wall, opposite the plate glass windows which looked out to the street. This was the room for standing around in, though it did have a few tables. It was packed, happy hour having just ended. Rob shuffled sideways around the tables and chairs and through the drinkers and smokers until he made it to the far room, the one he and Butch preferred. As Rob stepped through the opening from the first room to the second, he scanned the booths along the far outside wall, then looked to the long bar which ran the length of the inside wall to his right.

There at the corner where the bar curved around to meet the wall sat Butch, half on a stool, facing away from the bar and leaning back with his elbows propped on the bar counter for support, shirt sleeves rolled up his forearms, collar unbuttoned, tie loose, a Miller Lite in one hand, a cigarette with a long drooping ash about to fall in the other, and letting—not that he could help it—his big belly hang over his belt, stretching the button to the point of popping. Butch stared vacantly toward the booths against the opposite wall, mouth open, lip distended. His chin sported a streak of what appeared to be ranch dressing. Rob looked to the right and the left on the bar, then directly at Butch.

“Where are the Buffalo wings?”

“What Buffalo wings?” When Butch spoke, the movement made the cigarette ash drop to the floor. He took a drink of his beer, then turned slightly and tapped the cigarette on the edge of an ash tray on the bar without looking back at it.

“The ones you’ve been eating.”

“How’d you know? I ate ‘em all.”

“Well, wipe your mouth, you slob.”

“Oh. Ok.” Butch set his cigarette down in the ashtray, again without looking, and started to reach forward.

“Not on your tie!”

“Ok.”

But before Rob could say anything else, Butch dipped his head forward and lowered his chin, catching it on his collar. He looked back up at Rob.

“That got it, Boss?”

“Jesus, Butch, you’ll be lucky if you live to thirty.”

“Why? Only got a year to go. What’s that have to do with wiping my face, anyway?”

Rob just shook his head and reached over to the bartender who was already handing him a Heineken without needing the order. Rob smiled at him.

“Hey, Ace, how long’s this guy been sitting here?”

“Two orders of wings and three Lites, Rob. Not long.”

Rob pulled a stool out and sat down between Butch at the corner and the wall off the entrance. It was the perfect perch, the one they always jockeyed for. There, they were the first to see whoever walked through the door and the music wasn’t quite so loud since the sound system’s speakers were centered on the wall behind the bar just above the bottles of booze.

“Any talent tonight?’

“Naw, not much. Bunch of old broads. Sonya was here for a little while but she left about a half hour ago.”

“Sonya? You didn’t tell her anything about what we’re doing, did you?”

“What? You think I’m stupid or something? Naw, I told her I was going home tomorrow, just like George said.”

“Good. Did she have any news?”

“Naw. I suppose you mean about Marlena and Debra and all that. No, she hasn’t said much about any of that in quite a while. All she ever talks about now is how lonely she is and how all men are jerks and all.”

“What, she’s not waiting for her husband to get out of jail?”

“Sonya? You kiddin’? Shit no. I think she’s done half the guys in the stockroom. She walks back there and they follow her around like pack dogs after a bitch in heat. She even gave Michelson a blow job out in the parking lot the other day.”

“Michelson? You’ve got to be kidding. Michelson? He ought to know better than that.”

“If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’.”

“Who told you? Her or Michelson?”

“Straight from the horse’s mouth—excuse expression.”

Butch finished off the half bottle left of his beer in one long gulp. Rob was still not sure who had told Butch but decided it was not worth knowing anyway. Ace set up another beer for Butch and looked at Rob’s, but Rob shook his head no.

“I can’t believe the things I hear from you, Butch. The place is a regular Sodom and Gomorra. Why am I always the last one to hear this stuff?”

“’Cause you da boss. So what’d you want to go over so important, Boss-man?”

“Nothing. To tell you the truth, I just didn’t want to be home tonight. Lisa’s sister is up here again.”

“Again? Seems like she just left. Jeez, is she moving in or somethin’?”

“I don’t know. I’m sick of it. It’s like it’s not even my house when I go home. They’re always blabbering away all night. I can’t watch TV in the living room. They both glare at me when I go outside to have a smoke. The only one happy to see me there anymore—or that I look forward to seeing—is the dog. I spend more time outside with him than inside with Lisa, especially when her sister’s here.”

“Hell, man, life’s too short.”

“No, it’s the other way around. Life’s too long.”

“So, you thinkin’ about a divorce?”

“No. I don’t know. Maybe she is. I just don’t want to deal with that. You know, Butch, she’s really a sweet girl. I don’t know how it got like this. I want to be nice to her and I think she wants it to be nice, too, but we just seem to freeze up when we’re around each other. We treat anybody else in the world nicer than we treat each other. I guess it’s that old saying, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’”

“Yeah, well, I ain’t no Ann Landers, so what do I know, but you work too much. You ought to take her somewhere, have some fun with her.”

“Aw, I’ve tried to. I’ve suggested that we go away for a long weekend but she’s always got something else planned or her sister’s coming up or whatever, and I say ok. Then she’ll bring it up at the last minute sometime and I can’t go and then it’s like I’m the dirty dog. I think we’ve both just sort of given up.”

“Think she’s got somebody else?”

Rob paused, taking a sip of his beer. That possibility had never crossed Rob’s mind. He wondered why. Was it because he trusted her too much or was he just too egotistical to think she would want anyone else?

“No. I mean, I don’t think so. I’ve never really thought about that.”

“Maybe she figures you do.”

“She’s never said that. When, anyway? When am I supposed to have time for an affair?”

“It only takes about as long as it took Michelson to get his pipes cleaned.”

“Jeez, Butch, you are one crude s.o.b.”

Rob caught Ace’s eye and motioned for another one. He pulled a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket, then fished the lighter out from beside it. Looking up from lighting the cigarette, he just then noticed that a girl had walked up. Long legged, in faded blue jeans and a white sweater, straight brown hair lying in gentle curls at her shoulders, she smiled and said, “Will you light mine?”

Rob smiled back and lifted the lighter for her.

“Damn right he will, Baby,” Butch answered. “Oh, you mean the cigarette.”

Rob said nothing, just smiling and blushing. The girl looked over at Butch and exhaled the smoke in his face.

“Thank you, Sweetheart,” Butch said.

The girl turned her back and returned to somewhere further down the bar.

“Whoa, Rob, you need to go see about that!”

“No I don’t. I’ve got enough trouble.”

“That is your trouble, man. You don’t have any trouble. You don’t know nothin’ about women. You’re naive.”

“Naive? Me? How am I naive?”

“You’re too nice, man. Women don’t dig that. This ain’t a perfect world. They all say they want a faithful husband, one with a good job, one who is sensitive and caring, one who will protect them and put their kids though college. Bullshit. They want to be turned on. They want fantasy. They want what somebody else has, whatever or whoever it is. And poor shmucks like you and me run ourselves ragged trying to be Mr. Perfect for them, and they hate us for it.

“Sure, they’ll use us. They’ll put up with us as a holding pattern, to get where they want to go, but we ain’t what they want. They want that asshole at the end of the bar, that guy with the ring in his ear and the Corvette outside over there. You and me, sitting here and agonizing over why things don’t work out with women, we’re just stooges. The other guys get laid all the time. It’s the women, man, they’re like the root of all evil. Just look at the Bible. Who got us all kicked out of the Garden? It wasn’t Adam. Who was behind John the Baptist’s head gettin’ chopped off?”

Butch paused to pick up his new beer, never shifting from his position on the stool.

“Gee, Butch, I’ve never heard you wax so eloquent.” Rob was still trying to imagine Butch attempting to be Mr. Perfect when Butch’s last question caught up with him.

“Butch, who was it that was behind John the Baptist’s head getting cut off?”

“Hell, I don’t remember her name. It was some broad, though. Talked her father into it I think, or maybe it was her husband. It was a broad, though, I’m sure about that.”

Rob looked at his watch. He decided not to eat.

“Maybe I ought to be shoving off. Have you packed yet?”

“Listen, Rob. You know what the only honest relationship between a man and a woman is?”

Rob did not answer, assuming that Butch would go ahead anyway.

“Well, do you?”

“No.”

“It’s the transaction between a hooker and her john. That’s it. Slam, bam, thank you ma’am, fifty bucks, and bing-bada-boom, everybody walks off happy.”

“Butch, you never cease to amaze me.”

“I’m tellin’ ya, man, everything else is just a big game between the guys tryin’ to get laid, and the women tryin’ to figure out how to make ‘em pay for it one way or the other.”

“What about true love?”

“No such thing, man. It does not exist. Anybody that believes that it does is just a fool, or else they’re kiddin’ themselves. I’m tellin’ you, Rob, you’re naive.”

“Well, Butch, thanks for enlightening me. I’ll think about what you’ve said. I think you may well have a point here and there.”

“You’ll see. I’m right. I figured it out a long time ago. You’ll see.”

“You leaving now? I’m out of here.” Rob put some money on the bar, enough to cover both their beers but not the wings.

“Naw. I’m gonna hang out a while, see what happens in.”

“Well, look sharp, true love may just walk in here tonight and slap you in the face.”

Right then, the girl in the white sweater walked by. Butch looked up and winked at her. At the same moment, Rob poked Butch in the belly. Butch lurched forward and slid off the stool, nearly falling to the floor.

“You bastard! I’ll get you back for that!”

The girl laughed and Rob walked out behind her.

Inspired by a true story, the novel “In Measured Steps” details the efforts of young Robert Wiss Bozanich to save his grandfather’s company from bankruptcy by salvaging a botched million-dollar sale to the ruthless von Hasen brothers. Beautiful Marlena must choose between the rivals, while happy go lucky sidekick Butch Snider rides shotgun the whole way. A riveting, suspenseful story of love, drama, and self-discovery set on the streets of America and Europe.