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The Kneeler

by George Murray 6 months ago in Short Story · updated 29 days ago
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James Morse's Last Night Alive

The Kneeler
Photo by Mareko Tamaleaa on Unsplash

10:30 PM and James Morse is at the bar of the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino sipping a glass of scotch that would have been far too expensive for him even if he wasn’t 200,000 in debt. That’s no problem, though. The debt was from out west, built up on the Strip of Vegas and then, when Vegas got too expensive, Reno. Now he is back east, casting bets at Reservation casinos under the name ‘Morton Quailey.’ His bookies gave up chasing him months ago. Last time they got close was at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, where James had paid off the valet to send them after the wrong car. The time before that was in a speakeasy in Billings, Montana, where James had paid an unsuspecting rube half a grand to swap clothes with him. Before that, Salt Lake City, where James had mussed up his hair and convinced a cop that the guys after him were muggers. That one wasn’t even a lie.

A lesser man might have given up by now, thanked his good luck for leaving him with two good knees and a skull unmarred by bullet holes before settling down and getting a real job with a new identity. James is not a lesser man. What’s the point of being 200,000 in debt if you’re not going to have fun with it?

James has his chair turned so his back faces the bar, and he watches the stage with amusement as a blacked out college kid stumbles through an off-key rendition of September by Earth Wind and Fire. He is singing at a faster tempo than the karaoke machine, so every line or so he has to pause to wait for the lyrics to pop up. When he whines out the final ‘ba-dee-ya’ the crowd applauds, led by the singer’s cadre of frat brother friends.

The college kid stumbles off stage and is replaced by a middle aged woman and We Didn’t Start the Fire. James watches the kid join his friends and thinks back to when he was that age, training as an opera singer in Vanderbilt. He and his friends would go out to The Maple Bar on Thursday nights when they had the karaoke machine up. James would get a shot of whiskey- later two shots, by senior year he needed four- to get a good buzz going, and then he would saunter up to the stage and bring the house down with a performance of My Way that put Sinatra to shame. Brian Martino, his roommate, hated it. “It’s a dirge,” he would say. “You destroy the mood every time you sing that.” James would retort by saying that hey, tell that to the old guys that buy me drinks after I sing, but secretly Brian’s words confused him. To him, My Way wasn’t a dirge, it was triumphant, a statement of victory.

Brian had followed James to Vegas, where they tried to find work as in-house performers. Brian’s career worked out, three years out of college he was hired by Caesar’s Palace. As far as James knows, he is still there.

By the time James lifts himself from his thoughts he realizes that he has gone up to the guy manning the karaoke machine and put his fake name and My Way in the queue. He has a moment of doubt- he hasn’t sang in years. He doesn’t even know if he’s still good at it. He is about to go back and tell the karaoke man that he changed his mind, when he notices that someone is sitting next to his empty stool, staring at him with a friendly grin.

“Hey, James.”

“Brian? Holy shit.”

Brian stands and they exchange a curt, manly hug. James calls the bartender and orders drinks for the two of them, on his tab.

“Let me cover them.”

“No chance. Put that wallet away.”

Brian does as he’s told and the two sit back down at the bar. It’s been 10 years but Brian looks like he hasn’t aged a day. James tells him so and Brian laughs.

“So how’s Caesar’s Palace treating you?”

“Haven’t worked there in years.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Lost my voice for a few days, by the time I got better they had replaced me.”

The bartender slides them their drinks. James takes a long swig of his scotch, swirls it in his mouth and swallows. Brian does not touch his.

“So how have you been doing? Still with Carrie?”

The whiskey leaves a comfortable burn as it slides down James’ gullet and he considers telling the truth, but at the last moment it gets stuck in his throat and he says, “Yeah, we got hitched a few years back, we have a nice place in Boston. You should come by.”

“Does she know you’re here?”

“Of course.” James realizes too late that he doesn’t have a wedding ring. He prays that Brian won’t notice.

“You’re a lucky guy, James.”

“It’s my greatest skill.” James finishes his scotch and calls for another.

“Come on, let me get the next round.” Brian has not touched his first.

“No chance.”

“Come on, man. You know you can’t afford it.”

James freezes in place. For a moment the facade drops and he is a cornered animal, a fox that wakes up to find its den surrounded by hounds. He considers his options for a fraction of a second. “Course I can afford it,” he says.

“No you can’t.” Brian’s face is contorted into a mask of concern but one glance into his eyes shows James that there’s nothing there. “Not unless you also have 300 grand for me right now.”

The bartender brings James his scotch, but James doesn’t touch it. “So you’re working for Lewis now?”

Brian shrugs. “Lewis. Friends of Lewis. You owe a lot of people a lot of money.”

Without warning James’ shock is replaced by raw, angry grief, eating at his lungs and bubbling up his throat, like all the scotch he drank tonight and last night and every night since college had been waiting in his gut to seize control of his body and go fucking apeshit on every aspect of his life. He looks over his old friend and he wants nothing more than to grab him by the neck and choke the life out of him, to beat his head against the hardwood bar until there’s nothing on the end of his traitor neck but a slow ooze of brain and viscera.

“Fuck you,” he says instead.

“I’m sorry, James. It’s nothing personal.” For the first time that night, Brian takes a sip of his drink. “I wish I was still singing at Caesar’s. But I gotta pay the bills somehow.”

The rational part of James’ brain has now squeezed in to share the stage with the enraged beast and his eyes are darting around the bar, casing out the exits. The main entrance from the bar to the casino looks open- no, in a corner, staring at him, is a man he recognizes from Montana. The emergency exit is covered by a tall, bony woman that James had a run in with in Utah.

“I’ve got guys all through this casino.” Brian was following his gaze. “You’re not making it out this time.”

“I don’t owe 300 grand. I owe 200.” James’ eyes continue to dart around the room, the wheels in his brain working overtime.

Brian sighs, takes another drink. “After the amount of shit you’ve pulled? I had to talk them down from ordering a hit on you right off.”

James says nothing. Now his eyes are fixed on the stage. There’s a girl from the college group up there now, absolutely ruining some pop song that he is too old to know the name of.

“Listen, I can maybe spot you 50k if that would help. I don’t want this to end in blood, James.”

James is no longer listening to Brian. He is listening to the karaoke girl trail off into nothingness, walk off the stage as her friends applaud, the attendant looking at his list, reading it, putting the microphone to his lips and calling-

“Morton Quailey? My Way?”

Never bet against James Morse.

James gives a sparkling grin to Brian, downs his scotch in one go, and walks up to the stage. The vengeful beast that moments ago wanted to turn his friend into a bloodstain now leaps with joy when it hears Brian’s incredulous voice behind him say “No fucking way.”

The stage is a proscenium. Garish red curtains hang behind there, presumably to hide a small backstage area with its own exit, leading to the maze of service corridors that keep the casino running. Judging by Brian’s reaction, he did not think to put anyone there. James just needs to pull the curtain back, go through the door, and once again run to freedom.

James hops onto the stage, taking the microphone from the karaoke guy. He looks to the audience- big grin, wink at Brian, give a flirty glance to one of the college girls- and then he turns and pulls the curtain back and-

There’s nothing there. Concrete brick. No door. Just a curtain and a slab of gray. James’ mind goes back into overdrive. Where to go from here? Are there vents? No, that's a ridiculous idea. Maybe he can lose Brian in the bathroom, or maybe he could pay him off, or-

My Way begins playing and almost without thinking James slides into the first verse, starting out soft and casual just like he did in college. I face the final curtain, he croons, but the twinkle in his eyes and the humor in his voice tells the audience that this is a joke, a spot of irony, that there is no final curtain, that there never will be a final curtain for James Morse. As he sings he relaxes. He will get out of this. He has a whole song before him during which he can dream up an escape. Brian and his thugs are ants, and right now James Morse is a god. He finishes out the verse in a proud, caramelly drawl, sending the titular lyrics floating down into the bar, through the drunk college kids and drug addled gamblers and right in front of the stony face of Brian Martino.

The final note of the first verse fades away and James immediately springs into the second, letting the energy fade into almost nothing before bringing it crashing back at full force. Regrets, he sings, I’ve had a few, and then he is thinking of Carrie and his mouth and throat and lungs go on autopilot as his consciousness is shunted away from the stage.

He is thinking of Carrie on the night they met at the Maple Bar. He is remembering her staring at him as he tears up the karaoke stage, catching her eye and thinking that he was young and drunk and that so was she probably, and he is remembering the sex that night, her moaning and him coming on her stomach and then he is remembering six months later when he eavesdropped on her telling a friend that she faked it more often than not, and he walked away and pretended that he had heard nothing.

He is thinking of Carrie when he asked her to be his girlfriend, a month or so after they first hooked up. They are sitting on a picnic blanket at a park looking over the Nashville skyline with a charcuterie board that she made and a bottle of wine that he bought and James has never felt this way before. He’s had girlfriends, sure, but Carrie is unlike any woman he has ever met. He does not feel like he has to prove anything to her or do anything to earn her affection. Being with her is easy, stressless, placid.

He is thinking of Carrie when she found out that he had cheated on her, after they had graduated and she was in LA and he was in Vegas. He is at her apartment and she is crying and yelling at him to talk to her but he does not say a word. He does not know how many women she knows about and is afraid he will give away too much information.

He is thinking of Carrie the last time he saw her, at a casino bar with a group of friends in Reno. He stares at her but does not approach, hoping she will catch his eye and take the initiative. She sees him, and for a moment he glimpses the same raw sadness that he saw the night they broke up, and then it is gone and she looks at him like a stranger. He has tried to convince himself that it was not her, just someone who looked like her, but he is unsuccessful. He knows it does not matter either way.

James realizes that he has blown right through into the third verse. And through it all, when I had doubt, I ate it up, and spat it out. He is belting now, flooding the room with mournful sound, the very doubt that he claims to eschew poking through his showman's facade and casting its terrible glow upon the audience.

He draws back for the fourth verse, returning to himself and his current predicament. He paces the stage looking around for a clear exit, mind racing from one option to another and each time coming up blank. James is not a violent man, but he’s been in a fight or two and now he is thinking that violence might be the only way out. Brian probably has a gun on him, if James gets the drop he can probably wrestle it away and kill him. But then there are Brian’s friends, all throughout the hotel if he is to be believed. It’s a long shot, but if James plays it slow he could feasibly get them all. He knows the casino better than they do. But even if he pulled that off he’d be at best on the run from the law and at worst shot dead by them. But maybe it didn’t have to come to that. Brian would take him to a second location, he wouldn’t shoot him on the casino floor. There would be less witnesses there, and James would have a better chance of making his way out.

His thought process is obliterated by the beginning of the final verse, the words exploding out of his mind and into his mouth before he can even read them on the karaoke machine. What is a man? That would have to be it then What has he got? Resign himself to death and then at the last moment surprise the bad guys If not himself, and go somewhere far away, north to Canada maybe Then he has naught! Or south to Florida To say the things, maybe he would call Carrie he truly feels beg for her to meet with him and not the words prove to her that he had changed, that he could change of one who kneels!

James is sweating through his shirt. His hair is growing unkempt, a strand of it hanging down over his eyes. He is barely singing anymore, it is something deeper and louder and more primal, blasting the lyrics into the bar, each one with the force of an atom bomb. The record shows, I took the blows, he locks eyes with Brian. And did it My Way!

He holds the final note for longer than he is supposed to, ending only when the instrumentals do. The room is stunned into silence. The college group looks up at him in awe. An old woman has tears in her eyes. James Morse sucks in a breath but it catches in his throat, like the whiskey he drank earlier is fighting the oxygen for space.

The room erupts into applause, blasting back at James all at once the energy he had projected into it. The karaoke man’s jaw hangs slack as he slaps his hands together. James smiles, the corners of his lips shaking with nerves. Maybe he can cut a deal, work here as a singer and pay off his debt incrementally. The last 20 years can be wiped clean and he can finally do what he was born for.

He takes another breath and again it seizes up in his throat. He coughs, and horrible red phlegm splatters the stage below him. He suddenly becomes aware of a horrible pain in his chest, working its way through his blood.

James looks across the room at Brian, but his old friend is no longer sitting by the bar. James tries to think but he can’t. His brain has become a slow fog, every impulse more complex than raw feeling stuck like a wagon in the snow. He pushes back at it, once, twice, but each time he grows weaker. He surrenders. The grief and regret and pride and scheming ended with the last haunting note of the song and as James Morse falls to his knees he feels nothing but the unyielding applause of the audience and thinks of nothing but the bright blinding white of the abyss and remembers nothing but the stage.

Short Story

About the author

George Murray

Short Stories, Sci Fi, Horror. Contact me at [email protected]

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