There Are No Roads That Lead Here

Childress tells me he thinks I did it. Childress can go to hell. Cher is holding my hand across the bar, telling me how handsome I look today. Her hands are damp from the sink water. There’s a square of sunlight on the far-end of the bar. Dust particles drift in galaxies above it.

The front door bangs open and the theater crowd files in. Some of them linger in the doorway, hamming it up, filling the bar with December air. Shut the fucking door, Childress mutters, and Cher turns her head and stares at them until the door is closed. Fucking assholes, she mutters too, and then leaves without asking me if I want another, which I do.

Childress is drinking the same whiskey pour he ordered an hour ago. He has maybe two a night, that’s it. He has a goatee even though no one has goatees anymore. Her cousin’s a gorilla, he tells me gleefully. I couldn’t bury my head far enough into my book when he came in. The door opened and I knew it was him without looking up, that big sigh he’s got when he walks in here, like he’s come home to a puddle of dog piss. I studied the book like a jeweler but it didn’t matter. He came right over and made a big show of undressing and put his briefcase on the bar like it was a gift. 

Then court was in session and he had to talk loud enough for Cher and whoever else to hear while I sat there cringing. Childress is an Econ professor down at the U. He thinks by coming in here he’s a regular guy. But he’s not a regular guy. He’s a lonely guy.

Not that you’d know it now. He’s bellowing something smart-like about the video games his students play and he’s swearing about it, going all fucking this and that and motherfucker these. I’m about to tell him he’s overcompensating, and on top of that sweating right through his underlayers when the door opens and thank god, here’s Guthrie. He sits next to Childress and pats the briefcase. He doesn’t bother to wipe the condensation from his glasses. Who brought their work home, he asks as if he doesn’t know. Cher brings him his glass of white and he doesn’t even say thank you. Childress pats the briefcase and they start going on about cable-channel politics and our prick mayor. I push my glass across the bar and eventually Cher fills it. The theater crowd won’t shut the hell up.

I don’t care about Jana’s cousin. He could be the size of two gorillas. Probably some big dumb Pole with a crewcut and a misguided sense of family obligation. He’s probably made up, a figment to give old Mac the hoo ha whatfor. Mac’s in his cups again, let’s get him good.

And now I can’t read the book. Not with these two yammering on about FOX News and the deficit. Cher’s lighting the candles. She strikes matches and holds them down into the glass orbs until the wicks catch and the flames surge and then fizzle gradually, the cast light rippling upward across her face. She catches me staring and smiles.

How about our handsy friend Mac, Childress is saying, and I tell him stop it already. Childress likes to press buttons and I tell him as much. Shove off it’s not true, or something like that. I have to say it three times just to get him to listen. I want it to just whistle off into the air and vanish but now I can see that Guthrie’s not convinced either. I look at him and he looks into his glass.

He tells me he wasn’t there so he’s got nothing to say, which is bullshit because I was there and I’m telling him nothing happened. I’m not like that, you know that, I say. He shrugs and swirls his glass. He has big oblong cinnamon rolls for ears and a nose like a toad’s back. Forget about it, he argues.

Yeah, but now I can’t and I think what if Cher believes it too. She’s texting her boyfriend or something at the other end of the bar. He never comes in. There’s a group behind her, all young singles with their phones on the bar. They’ve been coming in for a while now. One of them gets black-out every time she’s in here. When the blonde guy laughs it sounds like he’s coughing up a slaughter house. I wish someone would steal their phones when they go out for smokes.

Now I’m smoking too. It’s freezing and everything’s steely and hard and wormgray. A few cars motor by, headlights muted in the haze. I left my coat inside. There are five of us out here, shoulders lifted and hunched. It’s cold, they tell me, you need a coat.

We’re standing in a circle, the smoke from our cigarettes diffusing above our heads in gathering cumulous clouds. I wonder if they’ve heard anything. They’re from the theater crowd. Word moves through these people like shit through the sewer. I scan their faces for disapproval. What do you do, one of them asks. I tell them I freelance and they don’t bother to ask what. That’s really cool, man, they say. The crowd gets younger in here the later it gets.

We stamp back inside and I’m instantly warm. Ollie and Jen have joined Childress and Guthrie at the bar. Jen cuts my hair. Ollie is a taxidermist and should not be. He fetishizes the 19th century. We’re pregnant, they tell me when I sit down, and then they don’t flinch when I hug them.

I’ll never have kids. Girls my age don’t have kids anyway, and I try to stick to them if can. Besides, here’s my bride: Cher smiles at me as she sweeps by, a bending stack of pint glasses against her shoulder like a newborn. The stack is also an abacus. One, two, three, four drinks.

Everybody’s celebrating, even Jen, who says her doctor says it’s okay to have one or two. Shots go around. Galloway comes in dressed in a suit with business cards in both pockets. He’ll dip his tie into his cocktail shortly. I stash my shot against the edge of the bar, half-finished. When it’s cold out and I’m smoking like I have been, too much whiskey makes me heave into the bushes on the way home. Childress puts his arm around me. Playing hide the whiskey, eh, Mac? Drink up. I’ve drunk plenty, I tell him, and drink it up. No one’s sitting anymore.

My head’s starting to list. I haven’t eaten since noon. And then Jana walks in with her friend Gina and everyone around me turns and goes silent for a few beats too long. The queen bitch has arrived, Childress whispers, and I knock him in the arm. They walk right by without saying hello and take two stools at the end of the bar. They drag cool, wintery air with them as they pass, eyes scanning the ceiling. Guthrie lifts a glass in their direction. Childress nudges me. Oh, you’re fucked, Mac, he’s a gorilla. 


There’s a small, cobblestone road in Madrid, the name of which I cannot remember. It begins where two other, larger cobblestone roads intersect and bend. If it’s 6 AM in Madrid and you find yourself hungry, wandering, jet-lagged, find this street. There will be a hot meal.

This will not be an ordinary hot meal. It will be a bowl of fish soup, big chunks of white cod floating like icebergs in a clear broth. The soup will be served to you by Ecuadoran immigrants—three sisters—in the back room of their restaurant, which is halfway down the cobblestone lane. The steam from the soup will wet your eyes and condensate on your cheeks.

In the front room, a handful of Spaniards will sit with their cervezas. The back room will feel claustrophobic, a low stucco cave with no windows and a handful of bare tables bunched like koi after a crumb against the far wall. When you are offered a seat here, take it. Eat your soup and be in a place and remember it. Store it in your memory, like a dog remembers a face that has fed it, and return to it when you are jet-lagged again.

If you find yourself here in this city—the one I live in—you’ll find a parallel. It will come to you as if from a dream, like time-lapsed germination, like a vapor trail whispering out into a white, white sky. It will feed out away from you, off into the light, toward a harbor. Toward a clean place. Toward nothing. 

These streets persist in all cities, in landscapes that don’t have cities at all, that have roads and houses and out-buildings and gas stations but no cities. They come to you if you can find them, jagging out into the gap, awash in hope, padded, unblistered, the dreams of Alnaschar.

In Madrid there are still cobblestone streets. Here there are none. In Madrid they drink sherry and beer the color of mown hay. Here we drink from shallow wells, drawing viscous water into our mossy buckets. In Madrid, they pull down the doors in the afternoon and have a go in the back room or nap or feed the dogs. Here we do not have doors that pull down, except on our garages. And still there’s a road here for you too. If you wander long enough, steadily, with purpose, you’ll find it. 

Or you won’t. You’ll wash along, shuttling in the ebb until you’re set down in a strange place, where lost you’ll lie down and close your eyes until sleep assails you. And then whap, whap, whap like fish on a line your eyes will beat open, like mine have, a newborn without memory, without even shapes I will recognize later, when I’ve shaken this, like time-lapsed germination, like a vapor trail whispering out into a white, white sky.

The sunlight’s reflecting off last night’s snow like eternity’s first light. My mouth is stale and I remember now leaning over the bushes on the walk home. The wood floors are cold all the way down the hallway, where my phone’s charging on the kitchen table. There’s a whole block of cheddar, blistered and rubbery on a paper plate next to it.

I find Guthrie’s number and dial it. He answers it immediately, like he was already holding the phone.


“Hey, Guthrie.”

“I may kill someone over here.” He’s at his office. “What’s up?”

“Hey, do you have a minute—this Jana thing—”

“Hang on—” A toilet flushes and I can hear him swearing. A minute more, then, “Okay, sorry, go ahead.”

I’m not sure how to start this.

“So, you’ve heard about this, right? Everyone has. I don’t even know what it is, what they’re saying, but everyone’s acting real weird. And then Childress keeps talking about her cousin kicking my ass.”

Another long pause. He’s still there. I can hear him.

“It sounds serious, Mac.”

“What are they saying?”

Guthrie has zero balls. Zero.

“I don’t know, Mac. Stuff. Stuff about you and Jana.”


“It’s stuff you wouldn’t like, Mac. Weird stuff.”

I sit at the table and pick at the cheese with a butter knife. It’s all chatter: they don’t know anything. Just a lot of speculation and barking for the sport of it. He needs to spill the beans.

“Guthrie—” I start.

“I gotta go, Mac. Call a lawyer or something.”

And then I hear the toilet again and he hangs up.

I start to redial but shelve the idea. I have a deadline tomorrow. The tape recorder on my desk is an actual tape machine. Sometimes I use the handheld, but for the desk interviews I pack this one, the Slimline, with the full-sized cassettes. I strap on the headphones and press play. I’m asking a transit official about a bribes-for-contracts scheme. She has a head like a cantaloupe.

The tape rolls and rolls, unwinding from one spool to the other, the radius of each directly proportional to the other. This is all off-the-record stuff, even though I have a record of it right here. I’m supposed to destroy the cassette when I’m finished. Here’s the official saying, “No, Mr. McNamara, I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Not at all.” And I wait a long time, in case she’s ready to offer up something else, which she isn’t, so I continue: “But you did say a few moments ago that some employees were disciplined, correct?” She said yes in the room, but the tape didn’t pick it up. My voice responds to the silence. “So wouldn’t you agree something’s wrong here, that somebody broke the law?” Here she chuckles. “No, Mr. McNamara, I would not agree.”

I get lost in the conversation and forget to make notes, then have to rewind and listen again. Sometimes I’m just listening for intonations, pauses, creases in the conversation, not the content. My commissions come with a word max, so the editorial stuff has to be bang on. It’s easy to get sidetracked in the headphones. The kitchen’s humming around me, muted, snow banked at the corners of the windows.

Then the tape stops and the play button pops and wham everything’s back on. I hit rewind and watch the right spool give itself to the left one. “So wouldn’t you agree something’s wrong here, that somebody broke the law?” I ask again. She doesn’t agree, but does so tolerantly, patiently. I fill 3×5’s with penciled notes.

Cher asked me about my work one time when she was in on her night off, drinking on our side of the bar. When she asked she seemed genuinely interested, so I told her about this. I went into great detail, told her about the circuit, the magazines I typically work with, the pitch process, the commissions, the shit pay, the months of down time followed by weeks of work I’m supposed to cram into a few days, the whole thing—the interviews, all this. She’d only heard of one of the magazines that publish me, but she seemed impressed nonetheless and spent the night calling me Hemingway and I thought maybe she flirted with me for real, not bartender-flirting. It’s wild, she told me, seeing customers doing what they do. I see you guys at the bar, during your leisure time, and you’re impolite assholes or you interrupt me when I’m talking to another customer or you consistently blow it with women–and then I go to your play or your concert and my jaw drops, or I read your article in Howzit Magazine and I can’t believe it’s the same guy who fell asleep in the bathroom last week. She paused for a really long time and I thought maybe I was supposed to do something right then, propose a toast or shake a hand, and then she said: You’re all geniuses aren’t you? You just come in here and pretend you aren’t.

And I ask the transit lady, So wouldn’t you agree something’s wrong here, that somebody broke the law? And there’s the practiced lilt and the parsing smile, half-gone before it starts. Her answers are cautious, but answers nonetheless, the guts of my work, filling up these notecards. How would she negotiate this Jana deal? Call witnesses? Check for priors? Hand me a box and tell me to clean out my desk and be out before noon?

She has great legs, I tell Childress, the kind that are short but look long. I let the tape roll. Behind the hiss, the whole-note rhythm of her voice spaces her words like Levittown houses, measured and sure. But a head like a cantaloupe, and that brings down the house when I say it, everyone lining up immediately with their own ugly-ones tales to tell. Then we’re off, batting around these stories, the further from the truth the better. Except Ollie, whose wife is there, he only listens.

Eventually someone crows about the cousin again, how he was in asking about me. About the knife tattoo he has on his forearm and the prison tats on his neck that only Childress saw so who really knows anyway. Justice shall prevail, I tell them, standing up straight. I have not sinned and therefore I shall pay no penance.

The kids in the back are mixing with the kids at the end of the bar, standing around clogging the walkways. The transit lady removes her blazer first, then the satin top and the pencil skirt. She’s standing behind her desk in a lacy, salmon bra and panties, telling me that no, I wouldn’t characterize it like that. The tape spools feed off each other. I’m tired and I lie down and sleep right there, wherever it is.


I smelled the drains when I came in but that was when the sun was still out and by now I’m used to it and I don’t smell them anymore. Now it smells like yeast and cigarette smoke from our coats. Childress has jaundice stains between his pointer and middle finger. It’s quiet tonight, like a holiday or a Sunday, except it’s not. It’s Tuesday night and the Tuesday crowd is late.

Childress leans over and flicks my ear. Something has to happen, he barks, and it scares me because neither of us have said a word out loud for a long time. Cher looks up from her phone. They’ll be here, I tell him after I bat away his hand. Someone strung up orange Christmas lights around the crown molding a few years ago and they’re still hanging there, half-dead, limp and sagging.

Cher asks me if I made it home alright last night. Here I am, so yeah I tell her. Childress asks about the interview, if I finished the piece, and I sort of answer, but vaguely. He doesn’t give a fart in a glass if I finished it. He has a theory that everyone’s staying away because they don’t want to see me get my ass kicked. I have another beer and he changes his mind: they probably would want to see me get my ass kicked, so we’re back to square one, the mystery of the missing bar rats.

Cher’s going through the motions back there, barely saying hi to anyone. She’s already wiping down the bottles and it’s not even midnight. I told her to stay away tonight, she tells me, and I don’t know how to respond so I don’t. I just sit there and wish someone would play the jukebox. Cher keeps the TV off after eight. I can hear her bar rag against the necks of the bottles. 

There’s an ex-cop a few stools down. I used to come here when this was a cop bar, he’s telling Cher. The hose-draggers tried to take it over, but it was ours, still should be. She laughs but it’s a fake laugh. He tells the same story every time he’s in here.

The front door opens and the street breathes its commotion into the bar. He’s sitting out there in a fucking Chevy Astro, Guthrie says when he walks in. Childress moves his briefcase off the stool next to him and stashes it below his own. Guthrie takes the seat and smacks me on the back. This guy’s a nutjob, Mac, call the cops. But I don’t want any of that. I want him to fall asleep or something, or for Jana to call him off. I’ll just smoke out back, I tell them, and Cher comes over with Guthrie’s wine and another for me.

You okay, she asks me when Childress and Guthrie start in on the mayor again. I take the excuse to hold her hand but I’m fine, really. Old Mac’s been around the block a few times. She knows it too, so that’ll be the last of it. Beers and smiles for the rest of the night, she agrees, and that sounds far-away and beautiful.

Then they talk and talk and the crowd accumulates around me and I linger over my beer, watching the drying foam lace the glass, the head flattening and then receding until only a few white eddies remain. I tilt the glass and the foam spots stretch as the surface area increases and after a while I start to feel bad about drinking the foam spots. They’re bantam survivors, the ashes, what is finally left when the whole disappears. 

And that lasts a while longer than I think it will before Childress steals Ollie’s hat and sets it on my head and they reel me back into it. Ollie asks about the van but eventually they all forget it’s there and then the grand hour hits again: the shortest hour, the ebullient hour. Our money’s piled on the bar in overlapping stacks. Cher’s taking it as we order, and we’re ordering like we’re on furlough, shots and rounds around and then around again. The hour gets big and then bigger, and even bigger after that, until finally it’s too big, a taut thing, a fragile thing, a porcelain ornament in the hands of a child, engorged, overfilled and still taking in air, and then it punctures and just like that Childress is the first to leave. He stands with great display, winding up his nightly pageant: an exaggerated, open-mouthed yawn I want to shove chloroform-soaked rags into and sighing and grunting like feasting giants, gargling the two or three chips of ice left in his glass. Then boys, I’m off, or boys, this is the end of the line for me, or boys, the weight of my loneliness is crushing me like a hundred anvils. Ollie shakes his hand and Guthrie pats him on the back. I nod in his direction and he squeezes a fist with his right hand and taps the open palm of his left with it, his eyes brimming with glee, eyebrows rustling his hairline. Yeah, okay, Childress. Be gone.

And eventually he is. Off into the night, where it’s snowing again. When the theater crowd crammed in their coats and hats were lined with a thin powdery layer of the white stuff. They came like carolers, red-cheeked and stupid with cheer.

Ollie and Jen gather their jackets next, after the show is over. It’s like one thirty, Ollie says to no one. Jen hasn’t said a word to me all night. She was out back with the smokers even though she’s not smoking and when I went out they changed topics and no one asked me why I wasn’t wearing a coat. Guthrie pats the bump, or where the bump’s supposed to be, and proclaims it a boy. Ollie looks like he’s going to heave into the trashcan. Give him a pope’s name, Guthrie tells him, and I think he’s serious.

Ollie leaves to warm up the car. He calls Jen when it’s ready and when she hangs up she turns to me and says, he’s still out there in the van, Ollie wanted me to tell you. I consider telling her I didn’t do it, but she won’t listen anyway, and besides she’s gone too, a brief flash through the icy air and into the car where Ollie’s dutifully running the heater.

Guthrie moves over a stool and it’s just the two of us and a few one-offers up near the front, drunk on some drink they saw in a movie somewhere. One of them calls Cher babe and I can see she wants to put a paring knife through his hand. If they leave we can smoke one inside, with the doors locked, with everything else at bay. Guthrie starts in about the weather and I listen and think about other things at the same time. For a while we remember the summer together and then I’m off bending into some space where the grass is long and I can sleep with the windows open, the wasted transplants on the sidewalks below stumbling into each other as they screech on home. But then it goes on too long and it seems like he’s just talking about the weather because it’s the easiest thing to do so I tell him to beat it, I don’t need him here. I’m fine. Mac is fine.

Mac is fine, he repeats back to me. Mac is, I say, and he says goodnight to Cher and then walks up front where it’s empty now. Cher blew out all the candles and turned the music off a while ago. The sound of Guthrie’s loafers hitting the floor feels like hyperbole, a B-movie sound effect. Cher locks the door behind him.

How about one last one, she asks, and I take a beer and then after I finish it I ask for a shot of bourbon and a halfie. She gives it to me and dumps the rest of her glass in the sink so I guess it’s time to go. They haven’t given me the keys to this place yet.

Cher hands me the bourbon and it’s in me immediately, boiling up my insides. Go ahead, I say to no one because no one’s there. The chairs are on the tables and it’s just me and Cher and outside the Polish gorilla. Everything’s sort of washing over me, like a stone in a river, stripped and blunted. I drink the beer down in one final, gulping swig and the booze carries me.

Jana’s arms are around my neck and her tongue is in my mouth and I can feel the winter air on the small of my back. My fingers struggle between the underwire of her bra and warm skin, pushing up past that metal barrier to her. She’s laughing, I can feel it, the echo of it against her ribcage. She’s up against the dumpster. The back door is propped open with a cinder block.

Then my hand is on her thigh, fighting up to where it’s warmer, warmer, where I can sleep, where I can let her radiate through me and warm me, when all I want is to be warmed. When all I want is to close my eyes and then open them in a different place. Words bunch up around me, buffeting me. They feel like urgent words, distressed words, stunned words, but they’re muffled and distant, like words through a glass partition, the hints and shapes of words but no sound to give them weight. Not like the hints and shapes underneath Jana’s skirt, between her thighs, a rip tide hidden just below the surface. A breach.

Cher’s hand is on my shoulder and she’s telling me it’s time to go, she’s locking up. Her hair’s down on her shoulders, loose. It’s just shadows and low light behind the bar, orange lagoons washing over pods of bottles. Somewhere out there, in a city I once slept in, there’s a back room with tables bunched like koi after a crumb against the far wall and three Ecuadoran sisters, long brown hair pinched into ponytails, stirring chunks of cod in a clear broth. I’ve seen it.

So okay, Cher, let’s go, let’s go then.

We make our way toward the door, unsteadily, along the bar where the stools are lined up, turned upside down so the cleaning crew can mop in the morning. The Astro’s idling in front of the bar, exhaust whispering off into the night. It’s after 2 AM.

Cher places her hand in mine and tells me everything will be okay, that I’ll be okay, but I’m not listening anymore. In the dimness of the bar, I’ve become aware of the garish, exaggerated light inside me, fluorescents blazing even as the world lapses around me, without me. So I insist, listen Cher, listen, I have it, Cher I have it, and then to the door, out the door, as it opens:

Come on, cousin, heal me. Set me down in the snow. Turn me inside out.


  • John Honkala lives in Chicago, IL. He was born in Michigan. His fiction has been published in New Ohio Review, Orca, and The Normal School.

  • Stills from the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a 1931 American pre-Code horror film, starring Frederic March and directed by Rouben Mamoulian. March plays a possessed doctor who tests his new formula that can unleash people's inner demons. The film is an adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson tale of a man who takes a potion which turns him from a mild-mannered man of science into a homicidal maniac.