Jim Bates

A Short Story by Charles Alverson

Paul and Irene Gehrke often wondered what sins they had committed in previous lives to deserve Jim Bates. Occasionally, when the Lamplighter was closed, the doors were double-locked, and Paul was safely in his own bed, he would ask, in his very best bad Bogart imitation, 'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Jim Bates walks into mine.'
If anybody dared to ask that of Jim Bates, he might answer: because it's here. On the other hand, he might just beat the hell out of them.
Jim was good at that. The best. In Sturton, he was the bully's bully, and few challengers lasted very long. He had come to the title honestly, without hereditary advantage. His father, before drifting off to an early death, had been a frail, reserved man interested mostly in exotic postage stamps and orchids, and not very interested in either.
But Jim, from his cradle, was a bruiser. In nursery school he discovered the joys of bullying, and there was no stopping him. He bullied his way up to the eighth grade and then put the seal on his education by beating up the junior high principal. Then, like Robert Burns' Fair Leslie, Jim set about spreading his conquests further. Over the next four years, a series of truant officers thought seriously about returning Jim Bates to education. Wisely, none of them did much about it but have a quiet word with Jim's mother. Each time, Mrs. Bates offered the opinion: 'Oh, I don't think Jimmy would like that'. Once they saw Jimmy, the truant officers agreed.
But quitting school did not hamper Jim Bates' development as a bully. On the contrary, his freelance status enabled him to bully backward as low as third grade and forward to the local junior college. Sometimes Jim regretted that Sturton did not boast a four-year college, but the town steel mill and nearby Marine base provided him with all the further education he required.
By the time Jim's contemporaries were wearing silly flat hats and gowns to receive pieces of mock parchment, Jim had graduated cum laude as Sturton's foremost bully. About this same time, Mrs. Bates gave up her frail grip on life. Though he never laid a hand on her, it was generally agreed that she had been 'Jimmed to death.'
Jim gravitated to Mrs. Baxter's boarding house. He didn't like Mrs. Baxter, her food or her lumpy mattress, but a bully has to live somewhere. Mrs. Baxter didn't like Jim, but then she didn't much like the current president of the United States and couldn't think of a reasonable way to get rid of either.
Even bullies need money, so Jim-lacking the imagination to become a serious criminal- got hired at the local box factory. In the first week, the management noticed that work was not on Jim's program. They tried firing him. But Jim, ignoring the pink slips and considered the extra week's salary a well-earned bonus, showed up faithfully the next Monday morning. Management despaired until it discovered that it could increase production of any department of the factory by six to eight per cent merely by offering to place Jim with them.
When Jim turned twenty-one, he sensed that there was something undignified about spending Friday and Saturday nights at the Sturton malt shop beating up successive generations of teenagers. He set about finding a more adult venue suitable to his status and chose The Lamplighter because it was close to Mrs. Baxter's.
Paul Gehrke was sure that Jim Bates hadn't been sitting in the back booth near the jukebox when they bought the bar. He would have noticed. But the new ownership wasn't in effect more than a week before Paul discovered that he'd inherited Jim Bates along with the stock and a peculiar small in the basement.
Every Friday and Saturday night, Jim Bates, as Bully in Residence, beat someone up. Reason or malice did not come into it. He'd beat you up for having brown eyes. He'd beat you up for having offensively blue eyes. He even beat up Roddie Stokes, the blind piano tuner, for having no eyes.
The Gehrkes hadn't planned it that way, but the Lamplighter's parking lot became a proving ground for up-and-coming bullies. Jim was an equal-opportunities bully. He honored no color or gender bar. He even beat up Shirleen June Thomas, though she was a bit of a special case because Shirleen had been a member of the Reedville Hell's Angels chapter until the guys got to wondering why their new recruit always squatted to pee.
No one ever sat down at Jim Bates' booth. Not even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, if they had dropped in at The Lamplighter for a beer, would have tried that one. That made it all the more amazing when, one Saturday night, a stranger walked into The Lamplighter, ordered a creme de menthe over crushed ice and plunked himself down in the booth opposite Jim Bates.
His choice of drink alone would have earned the stranger a Jim Bates, but to actually pre-select himself that way was unprecedented. The Cubs game on the TV went unnoticed as every eye in the place homed in on Bully Corner. No one was close enough to hear what was said.
'Are you Jim Bates?' asked the stranger, taking a sip of his drink through the little straw provided. He was a weedy little man wearing eyeglasses and the kind of cookie-duster mustache that Jim liked to put a fist through.
'Huh?' said Jim Bates.
'I'll take that as an affirmative,' the stranger said. 'Stand up, Jim Bates,' he added, 'and look over the table at what is in my right hand.'
When Jim stood up so soon, the regulars, who had been thinking about going home to escape nomination as that night's victim, ordered another drink and unabashedly stared. When Jim sat down again without at least snatching the stranger's head off, they were frankly stumped.
'Did you get a good look?' the stranger asked Jim Bates.
Jim Bates nodded.
'Excellent,' said the stranger. 'In case you are wondering, it's a Walther PPK .32-caliber automatic, eight copper-jacketed rounds in the clip, one in the chamber and the safety off. If you move so much as an inch in any direction without my permission, I'll give you a new belly button. Maybe two. Understood?'
Jim Bates nodded.
'You know Big Roger Stuttaford?' the stranger asked pleasantly. Big Roger was bully in residence at the Pike's Head Inn on the bypass
'I've heard of him,' said Jim Bates. He could speak when he had to.
'Seen him around lately?'
Jim shook his head.
'That's because last week I put two rounds in his gut. He's now in the County Hospital waiting for a new kidney. You know why I did that?'
Jim Bates shook his head.
'Because I hate bullies. I was bullied as a boy at school, and in turn my only son was bullied. We thought that when he left school, that was over, but a couple of months ago he was beaten up over in Wexford-'
'Bernie,' said Jim. Jim Bates knew his bullies.
'That's right,' the stranger said with a tight smile. 'Bernie Le Boeuf. He put my Stanley in the hospital. Now, all he does is sit on our porch rocking all day. He won't go to work; he's not interested in anything; his life is over. And all because of that bully.'
'Bernie's got a heavy hand,' said Jim Bates with the scorn of a craftsman for a mechanic. 'No class.'
'Yes,' said the stranger, 'but he's not so quick with it now. I bought this pistol, and the first thing I did was go to Wexford to see Le Boeuf. And I blew both his kneecaps off. He'll never walk again without crutches.'
Jim nodded. He'd heard that Jake's Lounge was looking for a new bully, but he hadn't been curious enough to try to find out why.
'I've been working my way around the county on Friday and Saturday nights,' the stranger said, 'taking care of bullies. Last week at the Golden Pitcher-'
'Fat Max,' Jim said. Maxine Turner was the only female bully currently working a first-class venue in the county.
'So they said,' the stranger agreed. 'She was off for the night with a head cold, but it wasn't a wasted visit. I heard about you.' He looked down and noticed Jim's empty glass. His own had barely been touched. 'Drink?'
'Sure,' said Jim.
The stranger highballed Paul Gehrke. 'Bring Mr. Bates what I'm drinking,' he told him.
Jim Bates drinking creme de menthe? Over crushed ice? Gehrke looked at Jim, fear creeping up his spine.
'You heard the man,' said Jim.
Gehrke poured the drink, and every eye in The Lamplighter followed its rich, green progress to bully's corner. Comprehension reached a new low.
The stranger reached for his wallet with his left hand, but Jim Bates said quickly: 'No. Stick it on my tab.' Then he reached for the sickly drink, raised it in the stranger's direction and said: 'Mud in your eye.'
Just a bit slower, the stranger took his glass in his left hand, raised it and said: 'A votre sante.' They both sucked on their little straws.
'Italian?' asked Jim.
'French,' said the stranger. 'To your health.'
Jim laughed. 'Is that what you call ironing?'
'Irony? No,' the stranger said, 'just habit.'
Jim took another suck. 'This stuff is really disgusting.'
'I know,' said the stranger. 'But I have no head for alcohol. If I drank whiskey all night, it would spoil my aim.'
'I know what you mean,' said Jim. 'I had one too many last night, and some gunnery sergeant from the base nearly creamed me.'
'But he didn't?'
'Nah,' said Jim, not boasting, just reporting. 'He wasn't as good as he looked. The uniform fools you. All them stripes, medals and stuff.'
'You know, Mr. Bates,' said the stranger, taking another tiny sip of his drink, 'you're not quite what I expected.'
'How so?'
'Well, frankly, you seem to have something of a brain.'
'There's all kinds of bullies,' Jim began, picking up his drink. 'Say,' he said, 'I can't stick this stuff. I mean, if you're going to blow me away, I ought to be able to order a last drink of my choice. You know: The condemned man drank an ice-cold Bud.'
The stranger laughed and asked Gehrke to bring Jim a beer.
'Ah voter registration,' said Jim, knocking back half of it.
The stranger laughed again and ordered himself a whiskey-straight, water back.
For the next two hours, Jim Bates and the stranger talked: About the stranger's hobby- taxidermy-about Jim's hobby-bullying-about a lot of things. Jim admitted that lately he'd started thinking about the time when he wouldn't be able to hold Bully's Corner against all comers. He even offered to give the stranger's son lessons in case he wanted to set up as a bully in a small way, perhaps at some suburban 7/11.
Finally, when Gehrke was beginning to think about calling the police, just to be doing something, the stranger knocked back his fifth whiskey, smiled benevolently at Jim and said: 'I'll tell you a secret, Jim Bates. This pistol isn't even loaded. The only clip I have is in my shirt pocket. See?'
Jim Bates, finished his beer, licked his lips, smiled and beat the shit out of him.

2000 Charles Alverson

Author: Charles Alverson chas@eunet.yu Agent: Lora Fountain