When Jesse awoke, the sun was still shining through the gap in the curtains. Puzzled, he rolled over to look at the nightstand clock. 6:30. AM? PM? With a grunt, he pulled himself nearer to the edge of the bed and leaned in close. PM. ‘What the fuck…?’ He threw the blankets off and staggered to the window. He squinted as he pushed the curtain aside. The street outside looked like midday, and through his bewilderment, he allowed himself to take in the scene.
He could see the whole town from just this second story window, small houses clustered just past the main street, with tall trees beyond that off to one side, and a body of water off to the other. Not the ocean, but a lake? A huge river? A bay? He couldn’t remember what he’d seen on the map when he’d plotted his path up here. Whatever it was there was a dock that was filled with fishing boats and people were filing off of them and into town. ‘Must be quittin’ time…’
He let the curtain fall back into place and returned to the bed, sitting on the edge as he mulled over his next move. His gaze fell on his discarded clothes on the floor and he frowned. Sure, Jesse Pinkman felt good in the overly-baggy jeans, simple t-shirts and sneakers, but did Josh Carpenter? He didn’t think so. ‘Shit, if I’m supposed to be someone else, I should at least dress different…’ He scratched his chin again, trying to remember what store he’d passed walking between the Inn and the bar. An old-timey General Store stood out in his mind. That would be as good a place as any to start.
* * *
Paul Ricket was crouched down, cleaning the display case beneath the cash register (the cigars had been looking just a tad dusty) when he heard to bell ring, signaling that someone had entered the store. He rose, slowly, his back protesting mightily as he did so. He grumbled under his breath. Even a year ago, he hadn’t had this problem. Something about the big round number 65 had made his body start echoing his wife, pestering him to retire and leave the store to his son at long last. Maybe next year, he kept repeating. Maybe this year was next year, his back told him.
He stretched, and then turned towards the door. A young man he didn’t recognize was hovering just inside. “Evenin’, son,” Paul said.
The young man started, head snapping up. “Uh…guess it is, huh? Doesn’t really look like it outside…”
Paul laughed. “It’s July, son. ‘Round here we get sun 22 hours a day this time of year.”
“No sh-…er, I uh…Really?”
“Sure at shit,” Paul said, smiling. “What can I do for you, son?”
The stranger approached the counter. “Um…clothes. Do you sell clothes here?”
“Up in the loft.” Paul pointed towards the wooden stairs off to the left of the counter. “And there’s a catalog up there too, in case what we’ve got isn’t, er, exactly your ‘style’.”
“No worries…I’m actually, uh, lookin’ for a new ‘style’,” they young man said, “Thanks, sir.”
“Call me Paul.” He extended his hand.
“Right.” They shook hands. “I’m Josh.”
“Well, holler if you need anything, Josh.”
“Yes sir, er, Paul…”
* * *
‘What’s with people and shaking hands around here…?’ Jesse wondered as he perused the rustic shelves full of denim and plaid. Nothing but denim and plaid. He wanted to stand out less, and this would surely help.
He walked to the railing that ran along with mezzanine and called down, "Yo, can I, like, change up here? Promise I’ll pay when I come back down, but this…” he tugged at his t-shirt collar, “…is kinda gettin’ rank, ya know?”
“Sure, son,” the old man answered. “There’s a curtained off area in the back corner. Just pull the tags off and bring ‘em down when you’re done.”
“Thanks.” Jesse pushed off the railing and headed back to the shelves. He dug around until he found a pair of Wrangler jeans (they only came in ‘Relaxed Fit’ up here it seemed) in what he thought he remembered was his size and a red flannel button down. On his way to the ‘curtained corner’ he spotted a rack of socks thicker than he’d ever seen before and snagged a pair from its hook.
He slipped behind the curtain, all too happy to shed his dirty old clothes again. The flannel shirt was soft against his skin, and he actually gasped as he pulled the socks on. They were glorious. He’d never take them off, he promised himself. The jeans were actually a bit looser than he figured they were meant to be, but he was going to get back to his normal weight soon. Fresh muffins each morning and enormous burgers at the bar would see to that. So he went seeking a belt rather than size down. In the same place he found a leather belt, he found shoes too. He’d miss his Nikes, but the steel-toed work boots he chose would surely be more ‘all-terrain’. He laced them up and then stood, examining himself in the full-length mirror that was propped against a nearby wall.
“I look like a fucking lumberjack,” he laughed quietly. “Good.”
He grabbed a dozen more plaid button-downs, more jeans, more of the amazing socks, and lumbered back down to the first floor, arms full. He set everything down on the counter with a labored breath. “Ok. I think I’m set.”
Paul smiled bemusedly. “I’d say so. Lemme get you a box for all of this.”
* * *
With his new wardrobe stashed back at the Inn, Jesse ventured back out into the bizarrely bright night. After the monster of a lunch he wasn’t exactly hungry, but he was in the mood for another beer. Plus, everyone who had been getting off the boats had been heading to the bar, so it would be a good chance to practice blending in. He’d been isolated for so long; the idea of being one among a crowd was an appealing one.
He climbed the rustic wooden stairs two at a time. As he pulled the heavy door open, he was hit with a wave of noise. This was the town’s ‘dinner scene’ to be sure. Probably the only nightlife as well, he mused, edging into the packed space. People watching had never been a favorite hobby of his, but with as diverse a group as this, he imagined he’d never get bored with the pastime.
There was a row of burly mid-forty-somethings huddled together at the end of the bar, watching a baseball game on the one TV in the place. A group of men a bit older than that were playing a raucous game of cards around a table in the center of the room. At a booth in a corner, a pair of teens were making out, oblivious to everyone around them, including a group of middle-schoolers in the booth in front of theirs, who were taking turns leering at the two then returning to their friends to snicker collectively. He spotted Wendy entertaining a table of middle-aged couples, she herself seated in the lap of a tall man in a John Deer cap. She caught sight of him and waved him over, but he just waved politely from across the room and continued on his way to the bar. He slid into the last empty stool, tucked into the corner opposite the ball-game crowd and picked up a cardboard coaster, fiddling with it absently.
“You just can’t stay away, huh new guy?”
He glanced up and saw Maggie grinning at him. “Heh, nah…Can I get beer?”
“Comin’ right up,” she nodded, “Same as earlier?”
“Yeah.” She strode over to the tap and he watched her go, noticing (how could he not?) that she’d removed the sweater she’d worn at lunch and with just a black tank-top on, her arms were tattooed with full color sleeves, from shoulder to wrist. “Whoa…”
She glanced back at him. “You starin’ at my ass, new guy?”
“Guh?” Now that she’d said it, he couldn’t stop his gaze from snapping down and honing in on it, clad in jeans that were decidedly not ‘relaxed fit’. ‘Shit, that’s tight.’ He shook his head, clearing his throat. “N-naw,” he stammered, “I, uh, I like your ink.”
She let the head on the beer settle, then set it down in front of him. “Thanks. Took years to get done. I started when I was 18 with these guys here.” She flashed her wrists at him, and he could make out the silhouette of a tree in a circle on each. “Tree of life. And it just grew from there.”
“Mmhmm,” she nodded, leaning over the bar on her elbows. “Probably a silly question, but are you hungry at all?”
“Nah, I’m good…probably good for a week,” he said, trying to smile at her. It was harder than he thought it’d be. His face actually felt stiff and he could feel the tug of his scars stretching. He turned his attention to his beer, grasping the cold glass with both hands. “Just beer tonight.”
“Alright,” she said, her own smile fading slightly. “I’ll keep ‘em comin’, you just tell me when to stop, ok?”
“Sure,” he nodded, gaze still on his drink. Maggie turned and headed to the other end of the bar. Jesse put the glass to his lips, then noticed the patron next to him was staring at him. He swallowed thickly, “Can I, uh, help you?”
The man next to him must’ve been native Alaskan, with tan skin and black hair that fell in a braid down his back. He was smirking. “Maggie won’t bite,” he said, “No need to be so gun-shy.”
Jesse took another swig of beer. “Thanks, I’ll, uh, keep that in mind…”
“You must be Mr. Carpenter,” the man said, raising his own pint glass in greeting, “You can call me Duke.”
“Josh,” Jesse said, letting the glasses clink together lightly. “You’re name’s Duke?”
“No. But that’s what you can call me,” Duke said, let out a short laugh, and then regarded Jesse closely. “Your face tells a harrowing story, Mr. Carpenter. What brings you to us today?”
Jesse shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He downed the remaining half of his beer. “I…I wanted the fresh air,” he said quietly.
Duke nodded. “There’s plenty of that here,” he said, “I hope it gives you the solace you seek.” He returned to his beer, and the two sat in silence for a long while after that.
* * *
“Another pitcher, guys?” Maggie asked, approaching the card table with the basket of onion rings they’d ordered.
The dealer, a heavy-set man affectionately known as Big John, answered, “You read my mind, Maggie.”
Next to him, a thinner man with black hair that was graying at the temples, looked up at her with admiration. “Sure you won’t sit in a round with us?”
“Sorry, Dan, I’m on the clock,” she told him, “I’ll be right back with that pitcher.”
“Hold on a sec,” Big John said, putting a hand gently on her elbow, “What can you tell us about the newcomer?” He pointed towards the back corner of the bar, where the tawny young man was nursing another beer.
She followed John’s finger, expression softening as she watched Josh drag his index finger around and around the rim of his glass. “Josh? Not much more than Wendy told you already: that he came in off the bus from Anchorage looking like a beaten dog, he ate almost a whole Last Meal earlier today. He’s been pretty quiet so far.”
“Sure does look like he’s been through the ringer,” Dan said.
To his right, a younger man with bleach-tipped spiked hair craned his neck to get a better look, not caring how conspicuous he looked. “Look at those scars…the hell you think happened to his face??”
Maggie scowled. “I’m sure it’s none of your business, Jack Jr. I’m not gonna ask him, and I better not catch you asking him either.” She huffed off.
Big John reached over and smacked Jack Jr. upside the head. “Idiot. Who taught you manners?”
Across the table, white-haired Jack Sr. interjected, “Sure wasn’t me!”
The table erupted in laughter.
Maggie slipped back behind the bar, still frowning as she dug around for a clean pitcher. As she filled it, she found her gaze slipping over to the far corner. Josh was staring at his beer, which was half-empty and had been since the last time she’d glanced at him. She set the pitcher down and walked towards him. “That’s probably pretty warm by now…can I freshen it up for ya?” she asked.
“Hmm?” he looked up and as he met her gaze, her heart gave a lurch towards her throat. ‘Good God those eyes…’ A hundred sappy clichés about pools and getting lost in them swirled through her head and it took her a solid, awkward minute to remember what she’d been doing.
“The, uh, beer,” she said, running a finger along the rim as he’d done earlier, “You tired of it? Wanna try something different?”
He watched her movement intently. “Yeah,” he nodded, “Got something lighter? My stomach’s startin’ to feel like a rock.” He smiled again and her heart took another lurch. How could a simple, tiny smile be so devastatingly sad?
She wrapped her hand around the glass, letting her fingers touch his and linger there for longer that was reasonable (let alone professional). “Alright,” she said, “I’ll take care of ya, no worries.” Then she pulled the glass away and returned to the row of taps, face flushed.
* * *
Jesse stared at his hands, embarrassed to see they were shaking slightly. He clenched them into fists and crossed his arms. ‘What’s this chick’s deal…?’ This didn’t strike him as typical bartender-flirting. ‘You’re such a fuckin’ train wreck, Pinkman, she probably feels sorry for you…’ He frowned and hunched his shoulders, sinking into himself. A low chuckle sounded from his right and he turned. Duke was laughing to himself. “What?” Jesse asked curtly.
“You’re out of practice,” Duke said. It was not a question. “But I wouldn’t sweat it. So is she.”
Jesse’s brow furrowed. The geniality of the place was so foreign, it almost felt fake. Were people really this nice by choice? He took another look around the place. He hadn’t seen so much smiling in one place since he was a kid. Even the ones currently losing their hand of cards were still laughing. As much as it unnerved him, it gave him hope too.
Maggie returned, the beer in her hand a pale amber rather than the deep reddish brown the previous one had been. “Here ya go. Sure you’re not hungry?”
“Actually,” he said, taking the beer from her, cautiously returning the finger-graze, “Do you guys do salads up here? I think I could go some something green.”
She smiled. She didn’t pull her hand away. Instead, she reached out with her other hand to grasp his forearm, squeezing it. “One plate of greens comin’ right up.”
When she pulled away, he was astounded at how hard his heart was pounding. It had been so long since he’d had physical contact that wasn’t violent, and this day had been full of friendly touches…was this really what he could look forward to? He put a hand to his cheek, half-puzzled half-elated and was surprised to find wetness there. “Jesus…” he muttered, swiping at his eyes hurriedly. ‘Don’t be a baby, man, get a fuckin’ grip!’ He glanced nervously at Duke, but the Inuit man was staring straight ahead, politely ignoring him.
Of course, this only made the lump in his throat grow larger.
“Fuck…” He slid off of the barstool and made his way to the men’s room which (‘Thank God’) was single-occupancy and empty. Standing over the sink, he turned on the cold water and splashed his face. Glaring at his sorry reflection, he ordered himself, “Pull yourself together. These are good people, but you don’t want their pity. Don’t be that guy.” He took in a ragged breath, felt another wave of tears cresting behind his eyes, and splashed his face again. “You…are not a guy who cries at the fucking bar. Knock it off.” He sniffed, water flying from his eyelashes as he blinked rapidly. He willed his breath to slow, and stayed leaning over the sink until he felt composed again.
When he returned to his spot at the bar, his salad was waiting for him, and Maggie was cleaning a spill nearby, also apparently waiting for him. “Everything alright?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, giving her the most convincing smile he could muster, “I think so.”