Ash Avenue was selected for Wards Literary Magazine's Editor's Choice Award in Fiction.
Content Warnings: Addiction, alcoholism, blood, death or dying, and violence.
Reed slid his jaw back and forth. He felt an ache in his head that struck twice and went away. He saw the figure of his wife in front of him explaining the reasons why they were divorcing, but he couldn’t hear the justifications. Everything warbled and sounds combined in dissonance as she blurred and unblurred. Her eyes came into focus before her mouth. When he saw her eyes, he saw sadness. When he saw her mouth, he heard the word alcohol. Reed spread his fingers on the booth’s table, and smoke rose from between them, swaying back and forth, and curling back beneath his hand. He brought his fingers together, and the smoke stopped.
Are you listening to me? she said.
What do you think?
I don’t know, he said.
You don’t know.
So you have nothing to say?
I want you to talk to me.
I can’t. I’m tired.
She brought her hands together and interlaced her fingers into a massive fist. Reed stared at it. Her hands turned red, and her knuckles turned white, and the bottom of her hands beat against the table four times, once for each word.
Why can’t you stop? she said.
A smiling waitress came to the table in a crisp black shirt and black slacks, and she looked between them while waving a small clipboard and asked, Will the check be together or separate?
Reed and his wife looked up to the woman, and Reed saw a small dancing flame on the end of the waitress’s clipboard that bent back and forth and whipped in circles with the whining ceiling fan above them.
Separate, he said.
His wife beat on his car as he reversed. She screamed at him and said his name a hundred times, and each time he felt smaller until he was invisible. She gave and stepped back and cried in his rearview mirror until he turned out of the parking lot onto Ash Avenue. He drove until he hit a red light, and he waited. No one crossed the intersection from left to right, and no one sat behind him waiting. He turned the radio on, and the speakers crackled, so he turned the radio off again and regripped the steering wheel—kept his hands at ten and two. He looked up as he felt the tremble of subwoofers and a lowriding Cadillac rode across the intersection, and two men inside of the car watched him as they passed. Their car was full of smoke, and their tires rotated on fire, spinning orange cyclones like tribal dancers. The men flipped him off. Black tire tracks of melting rubber and heat trailed them as they drove on. Something honked, and he noticed the light turned green, so he rolled across the intersection and across the black tracks and dragged them into a cross behind his car.
Reed pulled into Vick’s parking lot and submerged beneath the neon light of premium beer brands. X. X. Through the haze of ten-year-old wooden shades swollen with must and cigarette smoke sat fat men with bald, white heads. The light trilled against their scalps like a moving eye, watching him. His phone buzzed, and he lifted it.
His wife texted: Please don’t go to Vick’s. I don’t want you to get drunk. We need to talk.
He put his thumb on the digital space bar, and space opened in the text window until her message scrolled away in the blankness. The screen buzzed again, and a text from an unknown number filled the screen with a GIF of a burning fire that swayed in four frames of animation. Reed turned the phone off, and it went black and silent. He saw Vick’s Tavern in the reflection of the dark screen. The neon beer signs. Himself. He threw the phone to the empty passenger seat and reversed. A fist beat against his window, and he jumped as an old man lowered into the frame. Reed pushed the button on his door, and the window rolled down.
Reed, hey man, I thought that was you, the man said. You comin in for a drink? Paps is here tonight, and he’s sayin he’s gonna put us all under the table.
Oh, Reed said.
Ain’t that about the dumbest shit you done heard?
Yeah, Reed said, and he faked a smile.
Paps, huh, the man said, and he shook his head. Why don’t you come in Reed? It’s too damn cold to be sittin out here. Warm inside. Warm inside there, and warm inside when you have a little a that whiskey too, Reed. Ain’t it?
Reed looked back through the window, and the old men at the bar were burning on fire. Flames licked around their bodies and tore through their striped polos and asscrack jeans until they were naked and misshapen. They threw back small shots of amber undisturbed. Reed felt the heat, and he looked to the old man beside him, and his face burned and melted through the frame of the window, and his jaw rattled like a voodoo torch as he tried to speak tongueless words. Reed rolled up the window and sat back against the heated leather. The old man banged against the closed window with a fist like a falling meteor, and he said Reed’s name a hundred times, and each time Reed felt smaller until he was invisible. He reversed and turned out of the parking lot onto Ash Avenue.
Flakes of gray and black fell against his windshield as he drove through the extending arms of streetlights—through glossed eyes and a thumping heart. He rubbed the front of his neck, and his new hairs chattered against his shaking fingers. When he pulled his hand away, it was coalminer black, and he put it back on the steering wheel. Reed turned on the windshield wipers as the falling black dots closed in, and they smeared into a long monochromatic bow. The wipers ran until two thick tar lines pointed in each direction like lifted and opened arms. He drove toward The Railway Bar at the end of Ash Avenue, across the tracks. When he reached the train tracks, two warning lights flashed and alternated a red glow. He heard a train horn. Two gate arms fell in front of him, and they burned and crackled like witch crosses from tip to base, and when they stopped in tandem, their fire combined into one. He looked for a train and didn’t see one. Trees burned in the distance with black and veiny silhouettes fluttering within the backdrop of orange and yellow. Reed closed his eyes and put his head against the steering wheel, and as he screamed, the sound was swallowed by the chugging of rods and wheels. A blaring horn. The expulsion of air. Silence came when he opened his eyes, and a dying electrical motor tugged the gate arms up, and they were black and charred. Reed looked for the rear of a train but saw nothing, so he drove over the tracks, and the red lights extinguished behind him, out of sync.
Reed pulled into The Railway Bar's parking lot accompanied by three parked cars. The driver’s side was open on an old Tahoe, and a short woman yelled up at a wobbling man in the driver’s seat that was vomiting fire onto the ground beside her in spurts like dragon’s breath. When the man wiped his chin, the flames transferred onto the backs of his hands, and he vomited more behind the woman’s yelling. Reed turned off the ignition and stepped out of his car.
Give me your fucking keys, she yelled. Give me your keys.
The man belched.
You can’t drive home like that. I’ll get you a ride, but you give me your keys, Willie.
I’m fine. Damn. Woman, I’m fine. Leave me alone and get out a here.
You ain’t fine. You ain’t one bit fine. You think you’re fine?
The man spat fire onto her, and she lit ablaze from head to toe. She stepped back and looked down at her stretched tank top burned away to a ripped, black floral bra. Reed turned away from them and hit the lock button on his keys. When the car didn’t honk, he turned back to it, and smoke rose from the passenger seat. A wall of fire burned along the tracks beyond the car as far as the horizon. The city behind the tracks smoldered in ruin beneath waving arms of high flames. He felt a buzz in his pocket, but when he reached for it, nothing was there. He turned away as his car set fire, and as the man and woman pulled and pushed against each other before rolling around on the ground, entangling and breaking apart like bolides.
Reed touched the bar’s door handle, and his skin hissed, and steam rose. He smelled the meat beneath his skin. He pulled the door open, and smoke bellowed from within and escaped into the night around him. Ash poured across his shoulders and face. Ash fell from the sky above him. He entered as the haze cleared, and waitresses wobbled in front of a point-of-sale machine ablaze. A bartender wiped carboned glasses with black rags and stared until his eyes burst in his head like pustules. A man sat with his exposed skull flat against the table and his hands wrapped around a smoky beer mug until he slipped into a formless heap beneath the table. Team banners fell from the ceiling like riot flags, twisting in the smoke and spitting the fuel of their cloth as they descended. A television screen bubbled and flared orange circles as metals boiled within its frame. Inert neon leaked from its cracked tubing and domestic beer signs all took the color of the fire alone. Then Reed sat upon the only unlit stool, but he felt the tackiness of its leather beneath him as he adjusted.
The eyeless bartender turned to him and wiped the black glass and ash and carbon smeared in small circles. His apron fell away as one of its straps gave.
Whiskey, Reed said. Well.
The bartender nodded and turned to the bottles behind him. Reed stared at himself in a mirror branded with Stella Artois, and a crest meant for royalty—he reflected as a blasphemer to the class. A crack shot through the middle of Reed’s reflection and bottles exploded on their shelves. Shards of glass shot into the reaching bartender, but he reached for another bottle unfazed. The sounds of destruction deafened the living. The bartender put an empty glass in front of Reed and tipped the bottle.
Double, Reed said.
The bartender tipped the bottle again, and as he turned to place the bottle back on the shelf, it exploded in his hand, but he mimed on as if replacing the bottle, while his face melted into blood like a grim candle.
Reed stared at the whiskey in front of him. Reed lifted the glass of boiling liquid and shot it into his mouth. He closed his eyes as his teeth pressed against his tongue, hissing through the fire and heat burning inside of him, winding through his esophagus and intestines. He shook.
Anything else, the bartender said?
Reed heard the world turn on like a vinyl record catching a needle. Somewhere beyond, the practiced enthusiasm of sportscasters murmured from a distant television while glasses belled in bus trays. Patrons groused. Neon signs droned. Frying food sizzled. He smelled the rank of cheap cigarettes and the stench of budget perfume. He felt the artificial air from ceiling fans and the cold, lacquered wooden bar top. The smoothness of the empty glass. The cool. The calm.