THE LITTLE OWL
by DEBRA NORRIS
found it quite by accident on a late evening sightseeing stroll in the new town to which I'd moved. The Little Owl was a tiny bar set in a faded green stucco building sandwiched between a fish market and a junk shop. A dim neon light in a small smudged window by the warped door flashed gloomily- The Little Owl Bar. Pool balls cracking and country music wailing wafted through the door and hit the air like pelting rain on a hot sidewalk.
It was as if an unspoken voice beckoned me inside. I glanced at my watch- 7:30, not dark but headed that way. I should have time for a quick drink before night closed in. I'd have to hurry, a lone woman on the street after dark wasn't safe.
I tugged on the door and yanked it open. The smell of Pine-oil, cigarette smoke and stale beer hit me like a charging bull. The room was a square box with a ragged pool table set in the center, where a gaunt man with a blue Mohawk and smoke billowing around his head was hunched over the table, tapping balls. The man tapped, moved around the table with the energy of a turtle, and tapped again. The blaring jukebox sat in the far left corner and a few rickety tables and chairs were scattered about. Twelve stools lined the scarred mahogany bar, six occupied by an assortment of odd characters all sporting mohawks of varying hues.
The bony barmaid was a kaleidoscope of color. She wore tight red shorts, a purple and pink tank top and rubber cowboy boots. Her yellow hair was worn in a buzz cut, thin lips sported flame red lipstick, matching rouge on each sunken cheek, curly false eyelashes and black eyebrows that were painted on. Her age was impossible to determine. She reminded me of an emaciated exotic bird.
I took a seat on one of the ripped vinyl barstools. She strutted over, " 'hat'll it be hon?" She spoke with a slight lisp. I ran my fingers through my red feathered hair and said, "Jack and Ginger, please." She cackled with laughter as if embarrassed. The sound vibrated through me like plucked strings. She smiled then, showing small Chiclet teeth and said, "No 'ard liquor 'ere. 'erry can't get the license. 'ust beer and wine." She scratched her shoulder then cocked her head.
I smiled and said, "I'll have a Bud in a bottle." She grabbed a beer from under the bar like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat and opened it with a hand that was missing her pinky finger. I place a ten on the bar and she scraped it up with her four shiny black nails and pranced to the cash register.
I took a sip of beer and noticed it for the first time. A small mounted owl sitting on a dusty shelf behind the bar. Its heart-shaped face had glowing yellow eyes which seemed to bore into me like a drill. Its talons were razor sharp. It was a mottled shade of black, gray and white, pretty in life but now covered with a layer of nicotine. It continued to stare at me with an all knowing gaze.
She slapped down my change and noticed me staring at the little owl. " 'erry had it mounted in 62. 'e lived on a farm with his gran. Always owls around. 'e loves 'um. 'hats how this place got its name."
"Interesting," I said, taking a sip of my beer, still staring at the little owl with curiosity. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them and glanced around.
I noticed a pudgy man eyeballing me. He was heavily built, barrel shaped, rheumy yellow eyes with dark circles under them, a pug nose smashed almost flat, receding chin, bushy salt and pepper eyebrows, and tufts of gray hair spattered over his head like spots of paint. He wore a gray sweatsuit and gray Nike's, a sour expression covered his face as if he'd just tasted a lemon. He held my eyes for a brief second that sent a shiver up my spine.
I glanced down quickly and studied my beer, then took a long swig. This little bar had a strange unworldly feeling as if I'd stepped into another dimension. I needed to finish my beer and head home. It was almost dark.
The barmaid, whose name was Olga, plonked another beer before me. She made a strange clucking sound with her tongue then whispered, "Al bought this beer for you," pointing out the pudgy man.
I didn't want another beer, especially from this guy, but I could see he was heading my way like a shark who'd spotted a lone surfer. Arriving beside me he stuck out his meaty paw. I couldn't help but notice his nails were long and yellow. I swallowed hard and shook his hand saying, "Madalyn Carr." His hand felt like a wad of hot dough with glass inserted. "Nice to meet you Al, thanks for the beer."
"Anytime little lady, anytime," he said, pulling his head down like a turtle and making a gulping sound. "Care if I join you Madalyn?"
What I wanted to say was- I need to get going, but the words lodged in my throat like chicken bones instead I said, "Be my guest."
He puffed out his chest and sat down with a dull thud, turned his beer bottom up and guzzled the remainder. He threw the empty bottle in a trashcan behind the bar then bellowed, "Another beer, Olgie." Olga set a beer before him pronto.
He took a gulp of beer then wiped his arm across his mouth. "Seen you looking at the little owl." I made a gesture with my shoulder that could have meant anything. He scanned the bar as if he feared someone would overhear our conversation. Seeing no one was paying attention, he said drier than a cactus, "He has special powers, he does. He searches out those who have gone astray. A type of guardian you might say."
He took a pull of his beer and studied my expression, then leaned over and said through clenched teeth, "Always be on guard." I licked my front teeth as I drummed my fingers on the bar and nodded in the way you do when you know there's nothing you can say. He scratched his chest, licked his chapped lips then belched and said in a feathery whisper, "She flies at night...searching."
I shot him a look of disbelief, "Really?" I said.
He turned his beer up and drank like he'd just come off the Sahara desert, then mopped his sallow face with a dingy handkerchief he'd pulled from his pocket. "Damn muggy night," he rasped. He finished his beer, hawked, then spit in the empty bottle and tossed it in the trash can. "Olgie another beer."
Olga put her hands on her bony hips and cocked her head like some regal bird. "Al ya at ya 'imit. 'erry said not to let ya 'ab get over fifty dollars." Al pounded the bar with his meaty mitt and one of his long fingernails broke off and went flying. His eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets.
"Hot damn, Olgie, see what you made me do? I needed that claw for scratching!" Olga ignored him and begin wiping down the bar.
"Give him a beer on me," I said without thinking. Olga narrowed her eyes, raked the money off the bar and set a beer before Al.
"Thanks much little lady." he said as he swilled his beer. He looked me up and down and wagged his fat finger then whispered, "You were brought here for a reason. The time is right."
"Um huh," I said with doubt in my eyes.
He struck a match on his long yellow thumbnail and lit a Marlboro red, inhaled deeply, then let out a series of hacking coughs. In a cigarette voice he said, "The little owl helps those who need direction." This strange man was either drunk or crazy or both. How could a little mounted owl help anyone. Flying at night...indeed.
He jumped up from his stool like a game show contestant called from the audience. "Excuse me little lady, gotta make a bathroom run. Don't move a muscle. I'll be back in two shakes of a sheep's tail. I'm enjoying our little chat."
I smiled and nodded. I noticed as he shuffled to the bathroom, he walked like a gray owl on steroids, moving his head from side to side with each step that he took.
Had I fallen into a time warp? Why had I come into such a strange place? What was I thinking? Had I died and not realized it? Was I in purgatory? Was I in hell?
I was snapped back to the present when I heard a voice cold as ice hiss, "What's the cheapest smokes ya got?" A swarthy guy of about 25 had walked in while I was in deep thought. He had a muscular build, as if he were a serious weight lifter, dressed entirely in black, long greasy black hair hung from his hatchet head. He wore a Saint's baseball cap backwards, a gold stud shined in his hook nose, a deep angry scar in the shape of a crooked V covered the left side of his face. He glanced my way with icy eyes hard as marbles and graced me with a reptilian smile.
Olga said, "The same as the last time you were in here Crow. Pall Mall, 3.95 a pack plus tax." He began to count out change as he shifted his weight from foot to foot. Olga handed him the cigarettes. He snatched the pack from her hand, scanned the room quickly with bared long yellow teeth and twitchy cold eyes. Attitude oozed from his pores like body odor. He looked once more at Olga and hissed, his words crawling like poisonous snakes, "See ya around, barmaid." He hitched up his baggy pants then catapulted out the door.
"Wow, he was creepy looking, spooky even," I said to Olga. She scratched her yellow head with her long black nails as she said, " 'hat was Anthony Crow. I've known 'em since 'e was a kid. 'ust got out of prison. 'e's a bad one, 'e is. Always up to no good." She strutted down the bar collecting empty bottles.
Al made it back to his perch and we discussed the little owl some more. This scenario was so far out, I was having trouble believing it. Olga swooped by and announced last call. I looked at my watch- 8:45. That was odd. I'd never heard of a last call at 8:45.
Olga noticed the perplexed look on my face and said, "e bar is open all day. 'erry likes us to close up by nine." I found out 'erry was Terry West, owner of the bar. I suppose Terry had his reasons but it didn't seem like good business sense to me.
I left Olga a generous tip and promised Al I'd stop by again first chance I got, then bolted out the door. I stopped by the 7-11 for a few snacks then headed home as the smell of roasted coffee followed me out the door.
The night was eerily quiet. Stars were out, millions of stars like salt sprinkled across the sky. The moon shone like a newly minted silver dollar. The streets were deserted but I was only three blocks from home. The air was barely moving as the pungent smell of garlic wafted under my nose.
I couldn't wait to get home. I'd take a hot bath have a light snack then hit the sack. I had to be up early the next morning. A lot of unanswered questions flooded my mind. This had to be the weirdest night of my life.
Ahead of me I noticed a large tree ringed by tall hedge. It appeared to have a sinister element about it. There seemed to be a strange shifting of the air. I tried to clear my mind as a weird sense of apprehension and physical dread made the air seem to congeal in coldness. My skin was crawling with unpleasant sensations. A feeling of gloom and doom came over me for a brief second then evaporated like vapor.
All that foolish talk at the bar had made me jumpy. I was being silly, I convinced myself, so I trudged forward with a determined gait. As I walked through the shadow the tree cast on the sidewalk, a strong hand reached out and grabbed my arm like a vise and pulled me into the dark hedge.
The silence was shattered as I erupted with a piercing scream. My heart was pounding like a bongo drum. My 7-11 bag fell to the ground as panic bloomed in my throat like a balloon. The assailant slung me around like a ragdoll, trying to pull me to the ground. I felt helpless as a child and a knot formed in my stomach.
I fought with everything I had in me to break from his grasp, gasping with the effort. I broke away for a second but he pulled me back like a fish on a line. My mouth opened but all that came out was a puff of air.
A sliver of moonlight cut through the darkness. I couldn't see the attacker’s face because of a black Saint's baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, but I recognized the black clothes and long greasy hair. It was the creepy guy from the bar, the dangerous Crow.
He grabbed me around the neck and pulled me to him roughly. Cold fear was wound tightly around my chest and threatened to squeeze the life out of me. He gave a short ugly laugh then stomped the heel of his shoe into the top of my foot.
Pain shot through me like a comet, white hot pain. I tried my best to scream again but it was stuck in my throat like clotted blood. I gazed around fear invading every cell of my body. I was ready to fall to the ground in terror, when a shriek sounded, as loud as a police siren. The little owl sailed by and sank its talons into Crow's eyes.
Crow let out a blood curdling scream as another owl, this one large and gray, appeared from nowhere and sank its talons into Crow's back. Crow was flailing his arms and legs around like an out of control marionette. He unleashed a string of obscenities as he tried to pry the little owl from his eyes, but it was useless as blood dripped from his eyes and poured down his face. His back was wet with blood as the big gray owl tore into him.
He took off in a staggering run, fell, clawed his way back up, swatting the air like he was being attacked by a swarm of bees. He took off in a crouching run, screaming like he was at the gates of hell, and disappeared into the night, the owls hanging on for dear life.
I looked around, stunned. This was like something out of a horror movie. I put my hands to my knees and sucked in great gulps of air. My snacks were smashed into the ground, but that was the least of my worries. I raised up, smoothed my tousled hair, brushed myself off. My hands shook like Jello as I limped home.
Thoughts of what I'd heard at the bar whirled through my mind like a tornado. It had to be a coincidence. After work tomorrow, I'd pay another visit to The Little Owl and tell Al and Olga my story. They just might be interested.
I made it home without encountering a soul. I unlocked the door to my sane, safe apartment and moaned out a heavy sigh. I slumped in a chair feeling dazed and in shock. I felt like I'd just escaped from the Devil.
Maybe I should called the cops, but why bother? Crow had got his just reward.
I took off my shoe, surveyed my achy foot. It had turned a sky blue and was swelling double its size, but I didn't think it was broken as I'd first believed. I'd soak it in salt water, wrap it in an ace-bandage and hope it got better in a couple weeks. I was so exhausted that I crawled in bed, pulled the quilt over me and fell into a deep sleep.
Debra Norris is a writer and retired chef who lives in the bayou country of Louisiana with her weenie dog--LuLu and her three cats--Angel, Honey, and Tom-Tom. When she's not writing short stories she can be found in her kitchen cooking up some down home recipes. She writes a weekly food column called "Stirring the Pot" for her local paper--The Colfax Chronicle.
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