The day that Jules’ dog died, he drove his truck down to the Oconee river and parked it in the poplar trees along to the bank. It was springtime, and the grass was dotted with white daises and small yellow flowers whose names he did not know. The vet had given Jules a small plastic box of ashes and he held it in his hand as he squatted on his heels next to the water, looking at the way the current moved over the soft grey mud. His dog had hated the cold, had hated the water. He’d had thin, short hair and a bony, whippet-like carriage, and he’d spent most of his life shivering.
Jules drove to the bar on county road 15 and parked his truck in the lot. He fixed his hair in the rear-view mirror and patted his front pockets before stepping out and slamming the door of the truck.
In the bar was smoke, and warmth, and Jules sat at a booth and set his cigarettes on the table, and then the plastic box of ashes. He got a beer from the bar, and set that on the table too. He looked out at the dance floor, a square of linoleum in the corner. A woman stood alone there, her arms down at her sides. She wore a white ruffled blouse that fell off one shoulder. Her eyes were closed and she was swaying. She had lipstick on.
Jules drank his beer, and got a second. He held the heavy bottle in his hands. He ran his finger through the wet ring his beer left on the wood of the table. He pulled a pencil from his pocket and a little sharpener. He sharpened the pencil on the table, watching the little wood curls pile up.
The woman in the ruffled blouse stood next to his booth. She had bottle-red hair and her hands were curled. Jules brushed his shavings away.
“Are you gonna dance,” said the woman, “or WHAT.”
Jules followed the woman to the linoleum. He put a hand on her waist and felt her skin, where it was soft beneath the fabric of her blouse. The mirror along the wall showed him their heads together, his tousled hair and her lipstick. Then her head was on his shoulder. She smelled like cigarettes and car-fresheners. He moved slowly on the dance floor, back and forth. She was taller than he was, and he held her there, as though she had fallen asleep.
The song on the jukebox changed, and the woman lifted her head and laughed. “You know,” she said, “my husband would HATE you. You are just SO CUTE.” The woman pushed him away. “I need another DRINK.” She walked to the bar, her hips moving in her high-waisted jeans. Jules took his beer from the booth, and swallowed what was left of it.
In the men’s room he shut himself into a booth. The walls of the booth were painted black, and marked up. He dropped his wranglers and peed. A few men came in and stood outside the booth. He could see the laces of their boots, and the bottoms of their jeans. Jules left the booth and passed in front of the men, to the sink. The men followed him out of the restroom.
“Hey what’s your name?” said one of the men, as they walked the darkened hallway back to the bar.
“Jules,” he said.
The man laughed. Then he slapped his hands against the legs of his work jeans.
“Hey where’s your tits, Jules? I mean where’s your jewels, tits?” He said. The narrow hallway echoed with their laughter. Jules’ hands trembled, and then he turned the corner and was back in the noise and clamor of the bar. Jules sat down at his booth and clutched his beer, and when he finally looked up, the men were gone.
Jules went through the heavy door into the rush of outside air, and stood against the wall of the building. There was a little rain falling, and he watched the water bead on the wet cars in the lot. He took out his pack of cigarettes and pulled one free. His hands shook, and he had a hard time with the lighter. Jules sucked on his cigarette, and closed his eyes.
For a moment Jules had no thoughts, and then the smell of the rain reminded him of springtime two years ago, when he’d first gotten his dog. He’d lived on a piece of land near the highway and the earth there had been black-brown and wet. Little green things grew everywhere. He’d named the dog Ruby, even though he was a boy. He’d told his dad about the dog and his dad said, What kind of a name is that for a boy. Ruby had come from the pound in West Virginia where there had been a whole litter of Rubies, all crowded together in a cell. Jules had put his fingers around the metal bars and his Ruby had looked up at him with weepy brown eyes, his narrow tail trembling in the damp air. Jules paid the woman at the front desk fifty dollars and she put the half-grown puppy in his arms. The dog had smelled like corn chips and piss and when the woman wasn’t looking Jules had picked up one of Ruby’s big, loose ears and rubbed it against his cheek.
Hinges popped as a couple stepped out of their truck and slammed the doors. They crossed the lot towards Jules. The man was wearing a canvas jacket and work jeans and he wrenched open the door of the bar, giving Jules some sort of look he couldn’t decipher. Jules smiled at the woman and she smiled back awkwardly, touching her pockets as if she had forgotten something.
Jules finished his cigarette and followed the couple inside. At the bar, the bartender took the top off his beer and set it down without looking at Jules. Jules arranged his plastic box and cigarettes on the bar and sat on a stool and watched the smoke gather in the room. The jukebox sang at him, the too-loud music bouncing strangely off the dark walls. Down the bar an old man sat smoking. His face was craggy like the desert and he blew cigarette smoke out through his ruddy lips, filling up the air around him.
“Hey,” Jules said to the man. “can I bum a cigarette?”
The man at the bar turned. His eyebrows were white and flared at the edges. The irises of his eyes were dark little stones, and they watered as he looked through the smoke at Jules.
“Cigarette.” he said.
“Can I bum a cigarette.” said Jules, again. He patted the chest pocket of his shirt to show that it was empty. The man pulled a cigarette from his pack, and tossed it down the bar to Jules.
“You new here.” he said, and then he coughed into his hand. He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and roughly wiped his mouth.
“It’s not my usual bar.” said Jules.
The man folded his handkerchief slowly. “I been coming here fifteen years. I seen a lot of new people come through.
“Yeah?” said Jules.
“Back when the mines were good, a lot of people came through this bar. You work in the mines?”
“No.” said Jules. He took a drink of his beer and then wiped his damp palm on the legs of his jeans.
“Those mines are hard places,” said the man. “I worked there ten years, and I’m lucky I’ve still got my lungs.”
“My dog died,” said Jules.
“Pardon?” said the man. Jules picked up the little box, and shook it.
“My dog died. He’s in here. I wanted to throw him in the river but I couldn’t.”
The man nodded.
“That’s good.” he said. “River’s no place for a dog. You know what happens to the souls of dogs?”
“No.” said Jules. “What happens.”
“When you own a dog and then it dies, its soul becomes part of your own.” The man coughed, and smushed the handkerchief against his mouth. “However happy or sad or fearful or mistreated that dog was, that becomes a little piece of you.” The man rubbed his chest with his fist and then leaned towards Jules, lowering his voice so that Jules had to lean a little, too. “Animals are a part of us.” Jules could smell the man’s breath, vodka and cigarettes and syrupy flat Pepsi. “Animals are a part of us,” The man said again. “The river’s part of us too. Even the mines are part of us.” The man coughed, slow and deep, and the loose skin of his throat trembled with the effort. Jules turned away, and pressed his hands against the underside of the bar. The room was more crowded now, and a few people danced on the dance floor, their bodies moving slowly.
“Hey.” Jules reached his arm down the bar and touched the edge of the man’s ashtray. “Hey thanks for that. The stuff about the animals.” The man coughed and nodded stiffly, and rattled the ice in his empty glass.
Jules got up from the barstool and straightened his shirt where it tucked into his wranglers. He walked across the room to where the woman with the lipstick sat, on the other side of the dance floor, at a table with some men. The jukebox had paused between songs and he could hear the knock of his boots on the wood of the floor. Jules was almost to the woman’s table when he heard a voice call out. He turned and saw a booth of people that had turned to look at him. A woman at the end of the booth was waving her hand in his direction, the red-painted nails shining like small, bright flags.
“Hey,” she shouted. “Hey come here.”
Jules looked across the dance floor, and then back at the woman with the nails. She beckoned him again. Jules clutched his beer bottle, feeling the heavy dampness of the glass, and walked towards her.
The woman who had beckoned him had limp brown hair and her red fingernails were wrapped around her drink glass. The man who sat next to her had a tangled yellow beard on his face, and there was another woman, her pregnant belly tight beneath a camouflage t-shirt, her hair a mess of grown-out blonde. The table was clustered with empty bottles and another man stood against the wall with his leg cocked, his dark eyes looking out at Jules.
“We just wanna know.” said the woman with the red painted nails. “We just wanna know,” she said again, shouting a little to be heard above the music, “if you’re a boy or a girl.”
Jules laughed, and leaned his arm against the leather of the booth.
“Now y’all can’t all have my number, now,” he said. There was a pause, and Jules felt the cold glass of his beer bottle where he gripped it in his hand.
“No, really.” said the woman with the red-painted nails. Her eyes were heavy and she leaned over at him, her hair greasy where it touched her face. “It’s a simple question. Are you a boy, or are you a girl?”
Jules laughed again, and tipped his head. The air in the bar felt thick, like steam.
“I mean, come on-” said Jules. “does it really matter? I mean, you respect me, and I’ll respect you.” The group stared at him, their faces blank. A sour taste had crept into Jules’ mouth. He lifted the bottle to his face, but it was empty.
“Just tell us,” said the woman who was pregnant. Her voice was deep, and it crept below the smoke of the crowded bar, enveloping Jules like an anaconda. “Are you a boy, or are you a girl?”
“I’m bisexual.” Said Jules. “Ok?” He set his beer bottle on the table with a clank. The pregnant woman laughed. The man at the end of the booth stepped forward, his dark eyes focused on Jules.
“You better tell us what you are,” said the man, “or I’ll just have to find out for myself.” The man reached his hand out in the direction of the crotch of Jules’ wranglers.
Jules tried to breathe but his lungs had turned to helium, and he felt himself lifted, balloon like, from the bar. Jules was flying over the middle part of the country; Jules was falling off the edge of the continent. Jules was a ship, way out at sea. Jules’ heart was the waves that pounded the hull of the ship. Jules was alone.
Jules was in the bar, the wooden floor warped like a diving board beneath his boots. Loretta Lynn was playing on the jukebox. Jules raised his arms up and then he shoved the man as hard as he could, right in the middle of his chest.
“You fucking touch me,” said Jules, his voice cracking, “and I’ll fucking punch you in your fucking face.”
The man hit the wall behind him, thud, and then he sat down at the end of the booth. The people looked up at them, their mouths frozen in place. Jules turned and walked across the floor, his arms long at his sides. He felt a hand on his waist and he spun around, but it was only the woman with the lipstick and the ruffled blouse, her green eyes heavy, her smell like pine and a hundred wilted flower gardens.
“Dance with me again, handsome,” she said, her words slurred like oatmeal. She took Jules’ hand and he followed her onto the linoleum. Dolly Parton was singing about a river of happiness and the woman wrapped her arms around him, leaning her soft hair against the side of his face. Jules closed his eyes. He’d lost track of the time, and Ruby, his dog, would be waiting in the truck. But no, Ruby was dead. Jules looked back towards his barstool, where the little box of ashes sat. The woman was singing softly into his shoulder, and then, with thick sobs as though from the bottom of a tar pit, Jules began to cry.
The woman squeezed him tighter, didn’t try to stop his crying. She held him on the dance floor. “I know.” she said. “I know.”