We keep a tight group, the first-shift forklift operators from the fiber plant over on Osceola Highway. Except for Byrd. He works across the street on the RV assembly line, but he's Jasper's brother-in-law so we let him drink with us at Roscoe's bar. Talbot's the only real outsider, but since he only shows up a couple times a year we let him come right in. Hell, we pretty much throw him a goddamn ticker-tape parade as soon as he busts through the front door all sweaty and jolly, ready to get pissed and tell the same stories. He stumbles through the door and we all holler, “Talbot!” and raise our glasses, and by the time he sits down at our table he's thrown back two shots of watered-down house bourbon and has a cold pitcher of domestic draft in his pudgy hand.
Christ, does he talk. Wilfred Talbot's been coming into Roscoe's for about seven years, so we've heard all his stories, most of them more than once. But one of them he tells almost every time he shows up to celebrate his sales when he passes through our region. He works the whole state of Georgia, and since he's gotten so goddamn good at it, he's been assigned parts of South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and north Florida.
We even got to where we tell his story to ourselves sometimes when we get sauced and Talbot ain't around. But it ain't the same as when he comes in, has a pitcher, and tells it himself.
Talbot sells life insurance policies for children door-to-door for a company called KidFirst. That don't sound too worthwhile, especially since nowadays that door-to-door shit don't fly far, but Talbot's got it down to a science. You wouldn't think it if you saw him. To be blunt, he's a pretty fucking gross excuse for a salesman. He weighs about 280, most of it being his round gut. He wears black-rimmed glasses that always sit crooked on his nose, like one ear is lower than the other, and they're about as thick and dirty as the beer mugs in Roscoe's. Talbot's face always sweats and gets splotchy like he's two shakes away from a heart attack. And his hair, goddamn, his hair. It's as greasy as his sales pitch. His mop's so greasy it looks wet, and he keeps it combed straight back like he's from some big city law firm or bad porno flick. He wears short-sleeve dress shirts so thin you can almost see through the material with cheesy plaid ties and polyester slacks—they look like he bought them from the Salvation Army in the 80s, which was the last time they fit him. They're covered with sweat stains from where he's rode around in a Gremlin without AC. Talbot's company finally realized what a good goddamn salesman he is and gave him a company ride, a brand new Cadillac, fully loaded. The bastard still hasn't bought new clothes, though.
But the kicker is his two nervous habits. The first one ain't so bad even though it's nasty as hell. He picks his nose. You might say that everyone, from a hobo to Prince-fucking-Albert, is known to clean house from time to time, but Talbot takes it to the extreme. He's almost always got a finger up there, like something's burrowing through his brain and he's trying to dig it out. He does it so much his fat nose looks raw as a fresh New York strip. And the bastard wipes his dingers wherever he pleases—tables, chairs, walls, cups, you name it. Can't imagine what his car seat looks like.
His other habit is pretty goddamn disgusting, but funny as shit, too. Talbot jerks off like it's his job, and by God he loves his job. We even caught him in the Roscoe's restroom a couple times, standing right by the open urinals—his pants around his ankles, his meat in his hand, and a glazed over look in his eyes. And getting caught don't even faze him. We thought for the longest time that he didn't even know he was doing it, like he had a mental problem or something, till Talbot himself started talking about it. He liked jabbering about pounding off almost as much as he liked jabbering about selling insurance, said it was natural like shaving your face or taking a piss.
Each time Talbot comes into Roscoe's we laugh and raise a ruckus, bitch about the Braves or the Falcons, and get him good and sauced before we ask him about work. Most of the time we don't even have to ask. When Talbot starts blabbing he's unstoppable, like a morning piss. He tells us about the shitty motels he stays in, the shitty motel porn movies he jerks off to, the hookers he comes close to picking up, and the whole time he throws back beers and digs into his brain with those sausage fingers.
Then after another pitcher or so he starts talking about the policies he's sold, which always leads to his story. The one that sells him the most policies, that gets his company the most clients. The one Jasper calls the perfect story.
It always starts the same. Talbot tells us about some parents he tried to talk into buying a policy for their snot-nosed brat and how the folks were hard as fucking nails. They weren't going to buy nothing from him even if he was Jesus H. Christ selling tickets to Heaven. They practically push him out of their house. Then he lays it to them—the story. He tells them about how he used to live in this city in south Georgia—Hapaloosa or some shit like that—one where it rains like a bastard off-and-on the whole year. Talbot tells them there was this certain river that ran through the town, nearly ran through everybody's back yards. Kids loved to play in it, but because of the wet spells, nobody could ever really tell how deep it was on any given day. He tells them that every year close to two-dozen kids would drown in that river and get swept downstream where nobody could find them for days. And every once in a while, nobody would find the kid for like a week and the body would drift all the way out of the county. When this happened, Talbot tells them, the kid's body would wash up on the bank somewhere miles downstream. And the body—this is the kicker, what gets them, what probably gives Talbot a huge stiffy every time—the kid's body would've been in the water so long it turned gray. Their whole body would be the color of a goddamn Georgia winter sky.
Then Talbot says there was this one little girl who drowned one summer and was missing for almost three weeks. Talbot describes her as if he was the one who'd pulled her from the river. Her skin was gray and bloated like the others. Her blonde pigtails were a seaweed green. Her tongue was swollen and black, so big that it protruded from her puffy blue lips like she was sticking her tongue out playfully at someone. And her eyes—irises, pupils, and all—had gone white, totally blank. Then Talbot goes limp, imitating the girl. The bastard already looks bloated so he doesn't have to fake that, but he hangs out his tongue a little and somehow makes all the life leave his eyes, the way they look when we find him pounding off in the john. For those few seconds at the end of his story, Talbot really looks dead. It'd be funny except for how real it looks, makes us all shiver. And, what do you know, as soon as he tells the parents about the green-haired girl they're halfway done filling out a check for the first month's premium.
None of us could ever tell exactly what it is about that story and those gray bodies that drives people into buying insurance, probably the parents thinking about their own kids ending up that way, their skin some god awful color that just ain't natural for human flesh. Hell, Talbot ain't even sure what it is about that story that does it. He just knows it works. He says there hasn't been a time when he's told that story outside our bar that a parent didn't buy a policy. He swears one time that he sold a policy to some schmuck at an insurance conference that didn't even have a kid. Wasn't even married. We always call bullshit on this one, and Talbot sits there with a smug grin on his fat face that says he knows the truth. There was even this one time when Talbot told us that story at Roscoe's for the millionth time and some poor eavesdropping son of a bitch came over and asked for information about buying a policy for his two kids.
But something changed the last time Talbot hobbled into Roscoe's. He wasn't the same. He didn't burst through the door with his same jolly, sweaty swagger. He waddled in like a kid who knows he's in for a beating from his old man when he gets home. We all cheered and raised our glasses to him like usual, but he didn't pay us a lick of attention. He headed straight to the bar, ordered a double shot of whiskey and a pitcher, and went off by himself to a dark corner booth. Some of us thought he was fucking with us or maybe he drove for two days straight without sleep.
Jasper went over to sit in Talbot's booth and offer him a seat at our table. We wanted to hear his stories like always. In fact, we'd just been telling each other about the last person Talbot duped with the story. We wanted to hear about his latest sell, to see if his story still worked, even though we all knew it did. That story will outlast us all—it and the cockroaches.
Jasper came back without Talbot. We asked what the hell was going on with him, and Jasper said Talbot wouldn't even acknowledge him. Jasper kept trying to talk to him, saying stuff like what's been going on and what kind of shit heaps you been staying in lately, but Talbot wouldn't look him in the eye, just stared through Jasper like he was invisible as a fart.
We sent Byrd next. Talbot always liked him, probably because Byrd is as bumbling as he is. And nobody would flat out ignore Byrd—the fucker is that goddamn jittery, won't never quit talking shit. Byrd took a fresh pitcher over to the booth to see if Talbot would join us. We weren't really paying attention. We let Byrd work his magic while we groaned about gas prices, and the next thing we knew Talbot swatted the new pitcher off the table and it went flying across the floor, beer soaking everybody within two feet. Then he leaned over the table and socked Byrd between the eyes, right on his crooked nose. Byrd went down like a fish. Usually when punches are thrown in a bar people jump around and make all sorts of fuss, but that time it was just that one punch. Talbot went back to his pitcher without so much as batting an eyelash. Nobody else in the bar got out of their seat. The bartender kept wiping glasses like nothing had happened.
A few of us went over and dragged Byrd back without turning our gaze to Talbot. Byrd was out cold for a minute or two. We splashed water on his face and for awhile he acted like he wanted to pound the shit out of Talbot, but we knew he wouldn't do a goddamn thing. We ordered him another round and told him to sit down and shut the hell up.
After we got him calmed down, Byrd told us what happened. He said he tried to get Talbot's attention and give him the pitcher but Talbot acted like a deaf-mute or a statue. So then Byrd, of course, starts asking him about jerking off and hookers and seeing dead kids, and he said Talbot got this hollow look in his eyes, that drowned-girl-with-pigtails look. Except this time, Byrd said, his eyes really looked dead. That's the last he remembered till we threw water on his face.
“Talbot's eyes looked like the eyes of one of those monsters in the old black-and-white drive-in flicks.” Those were Byrd's exact words.
Just as Byrd finished, Talbot appeared out of nowhere. Spooked some of us, since we'd just compared him to a monster. He said he wanted to apologize. Byrd tried to get riled up again, but we set another couple beers in front of him and he was fine.
Talbot pulled up a chair and was quiet for a good ten minutes, only dug at his nose once the whole time. Meanwhile, we talked about other things, steering clear of subjects like Talbot and his stories. We waited for him to open up. Something was bugging the shit out of him.
Finally he spoke and it seemed like the whole bar went silent. You could've heard a mouse fart. The first thing he said was that he was probably going to quit the insurance business. He'd sleep on it but more than likely he'd drive the company car to Atlanta, give it back, and resign. It felt silly to tell him not to quit so we didn't, although almost all of us thought it. Talbot didn't say nothing for another few minutes, and this time we didn't talk either. We waited for Talbot to speak first, all of us itching to hear why he wanted to quit, but we sat there minding our own.
The next thing he said knocked the spit right out of us. Talbot said that his wife left him and took their kids. It wasn't so much that they'd left him that got to us, but that Talbot had a wife and kids in the first place. That was the last thing we ever expected to hear from him with all his talk of jerking off and porno flicks and hookers. Of course, having a family ain't never stopped other people from doing those things—even some of us. It was just that Talbot never said a word about a wife and kids, never showed a single picture from his worn-out wallet, didn't wear a wedding band. All of us talk about our kids, show each other family pictures from our wallets if we're drunk enough, and everyone that's married in our group has a wedding band, no matter how poor. Talbot probably had more money than all us put together. Hearing that Talbot had a family was like finding out we had bastard children we didn't know about. After that soaked in, we sat back and let him spill his guts. Hell, he even cried and we didn't think any less of him. We listened.
His wife was named Roberta, and they had twin six-year olds, Heather and Holly. He knew she never liked the fact that his job caused him to travel and be away from home, but he thought she'd learned to accept it, she even told him so. He thought everything was fine. Roberta never said a word otherwise about not being happy with the marriage, although she talked a few times about being unhappy with his job. She didn't want the girls to grow up without their father. That's when Talbot lost it. He cried like we never saw a grown man cry before, even more than when Chet found out both his folks were killed in an auto accident on their way up from Tallahassee. Talbot slobbered and snorted and got snot everywhere. We sent Jasper to the bathroom for paper towels.
Talbot cleaned himself up and went on with his story. Right before he went out on the last round of sales in his South Carolina region, Roberta made some comment about him needing to choose between his work and his family. Talbot said he should've known how serious she was, but we told him there really ain't no way to know what goes on in a woman's head. He thought she was just bringing up an old argument and he was too tired to get into it with her, so he told her they could talk about it when he got back from South Carolina. Talbot said he had to go. Sales had been slipping in that region, and he was getting pressure from the higher-ups. But if he'd just known how serious Roberta was, what she was really asking, he would've given it all up in a heartbeat. We told him again there's no way he could've known. Jasper patted him on the back.
Talbot went off to South Carolina and sold more policies than anyone ever had in that region. He said the numbers were insane. When he got back home he planned to take Roberta and the girls out to celebrate, but they were gone, not just out of the house for an hour or two to buy groceries. They had left him. All of their stuff was gone, and they'd taken the Gremlin with no AC. He said he tried to tell himself it wasn't real till he found Roberta's note. He still had it crumpled up in his pocket to show us. It was short and cold: You made your choice. I've made mine. He told us to keep it. He didn't want to read it again.
Talbot called everyone he knew, which was pretty much just Roberta's family and friends. No one would tell him nothing or return his calls. A week or so later he got a postcard with a picture of the desert on it and Arizona printed in red letters, where Roberta's family was from. It didn't have anything written on the back, not even a return address. He knew Roberta had sent it, just so he'd know they were still alive. Talbot had the postcard to show us, too. We told him it meant she still cared. If she didn't, she wouldn't have sent nothing at all. Nobody said it meant she still loved him and there might still be a chance she'd come back, but we all thought it. That would've been too sappy to say out loud.
Talbot thought going back to work would get his mind off things, so he went out soon after that. It was time for him to sell in our region again, and that's how he ended back up in Roscoe's. He said he couldn't sell a single policy this time around, and he usually got most of his sales from our area. Nobody'd buy from him with his normal pitch, so at every house he resorted to his perfect story. But even that didn't work because he couldn't get all the way through it. Every time, he froze up on the part about the little pigtailed girl. Talbot said he couldn't get that part of the story out because his mind went straight to the twins and Roberta. He saw their bodies pulled from that river instead of the kids from his childhood. Their skin was gray. Their hair was green. Their eyes were white. This time that river flowed all the way from Georgia to Arizona. In his mind, police pulled out the bodies of Roberta and his girls somewhere in Phoenix or Tucson, and their skin was the same cold color of smoke.
That's when he gave up and wandered into Roscoe's. After he finished talking, Talbot got quiet like he had when he first sat at our table that night. He sighed a few times and wiped at his eyes, picked his nose. Then he motioned to a waitress and told her he'd take care of our tabs and to bring us all another round. We thought the old Talbot was back, but he stayed quiet the rest of the night while we got drunker and drunker.
When the bar closed for the night he kept to his word and closed all our tabs, which had to be pretty goddamn steep. He went around to each of us and shook our hands while we tried to stand up straight. He walked to his company Cadillac and before he got in he said, “I might not be seeing you fellows again.” His exact words. Then he plopped into the car and drove off.
For the past few weeks we been talking about that last thing Talbot said before he drove away. We're not real sure what he meant. Some of us think he was talking about how he might not pass through our area any time soon after he quit his job. Jasper and a few others think Talbot meant something else.
But we don't like to talk about that. Not even think about it.
Jasper brought in local newspapers a few times, searching the obits for Talbot's name. We told him never to set foot in Roscoe's with a paper unless it was the sports' pages. We like to think that Talbot left Roscoe's and the next morning drove straight to Atlanta to the KidFirst home office. He pulled the Caddy right up to the front door, threw the keys into his boss's face, and ripped him a brand new bunghole for losing him his wife and kids.
We still got our same table at Roscoe's, and we still tell a lot of the same stories, except now we have a few new ones. We like to tell each other how Talbot socked Byrd a good one and how Byrd was out cold on the floor. Each time we tell it Byrd stays knocked out longer and longer. We also poke fun at Jasper and say he hugged Talbot that night and had a good cry with him. It really gets Jasper in a tizzy.
Sometimes one of us will try to tell Talbot's river story, especially if a new lift operator joins us for a drink. Chet or Byrd usually starts it, but by the end every single one of us has thrown in his two cents. It gives us a good laugh, but it ain't the same. It ain't never the same. That's when we realized it wasn't the story, it was the way Talbot told it. Only Talbot could weave that story the way it was meant to be told, how it made people do what he wanted. Talbot himself even realized his story wasn't so good after his family left. He couldn't put the same vibe into it.
The story we tell most often, though, is one where Talbot takes all his money and buys a big goddamn car of his own—a fire engine red convertible. He sleeps during the day at shitty motels and watches their shitty porno flicks. He drives at night when it's cool with the top down, letting the wind ruffle his dirty hair. In our story, he always drives from Georgia to Arizona, following back roads and empty highways. In our story, his family always waits for him—Roberta dangling her legs over the edge of a porch and sipping coffee, watching the twins poke sticks at a bullfrog that wandered into the yard.