One Night in a Bar
It was ironic I found out about the foiled terrorist plot in Britain while drinking Jack & Cokes at this seedy bar because I'd elevated my own threat level the moment I walked into the joint. A strange confluence of events had brought me there and, at first, I diverted eye contact from the assorted clientele. Before long, I couldn't tear my gaze away.
The place reeked of meth sweat and rotten teeth, white trash wilted in the summer sun. One gal wore bobby socks, too tight floods and a shirt that strained mid-belly, giving off the sense of ruptured sausage casing. Another had veiny muscular arms, white as a blizzard, which scribbled furiously on a lottery slip. Her sunken eyes made her look like a dead--and dying--ringer for Tom G. Warrior (a reference only BadBlood and I get, so here). A Latino guy nursed his 12th Bud Light and talked about his remarkable recovery from a stroke just four months ago, proudly tipping back his longneck with a still-whithered left arm. A blonde in a dirty red evening dress and flop flops ranted about restraining orders and living in a motel and sex with 15-year-old girls and "sick shit." The huge bartender with the black roots barked at us brusquely from behind her carefully, heavily outlined lips, "Whatcha drinkin' dudes?" She talked with one of her co-workers, who, based on the shaking, hit the rails immediately after quitting time. She couldn't have been more than a few months past 21, a tanning bed hue blanketing her tiny frame, and she talked excitedly about making $100 in tips the other day, which she hoped would pay for the dent she incurred driving mommy's 7-series Beemer.
Me and my buddy nursed our Jack & Cokes at the end of the bar and whispered quietly.
There was a time when I courted unusual characters, where I openly engaged them in conversation for my own amusement. I suppose those days are long gone. These people frightened and fascinated me, a world removed from my own, yet less than a dozen miles from my suburban Disneyland. They were blue-collar folks, construction workers and janitors and waitresses, finding their mid-week oasis in this linoleum hideaway. There wasn't much laughter. Just groups of people sitting around lazily recalling their day, deliberately, absently wiping the condensation from their bottles. They spoke with caution, as if going deeper would upset the balance of the place, that fragile comfort they find inside these walls.
The bathroom was an abomination, the details I'll leave aside, but for one. On my first trip, I noticed some unusual footwear peeking beneath the shuttered stall. Same on my second and third, encompassing a few hours. Around midnight, the bartender forcibly removed the guy from the stall. He'd been passed out there for quite a while. "Phil!" she screamed. "We're closed!" And turned the lights out on us to enable the ruse.
At some point, the jukebox went quiet and we sauntered over to give it a look. We'd reached some level of comfort here, had a few short conversations, tipped the bartender healthily enough for her to start calling us "darlin'" instead of "dude," enough for her to start putting more Jack than Coke in our glasses. So we figured we'd gamble a little and played some music that might shatter the delicate detente of the bar. Iron Maiden? Check. The whole of "2112" (how 'bout a half hour of prog rock)? Check. Jack White's squealing guitar virtuosity on "Ball and Biscuit?" Indeed.
The loud music seemed to animate the place a little. We got a tip of the glass from the guy in the black t-shirt for our selection of "Two Minutes to Midnight." And then a girl who wasn't all there started talking to us. She had a flat, clipped midwestern accent and a Joker-ish grin. She danced from aimless topic to aimless topic as we simply nodded and grunted agreement. Finally, she said, "Have you seen the guy I came here with?"
I had, much earlier. A big guy with red-brown skin and the calloused hands of honest labor. He had walked in ahead of her, but never acknowledged her presence, even as he cradled his pint glass and took long satisfying drinks, like the brew was a hard-earned reward. She flitted about him like a satellite, but he never seemed to notice.
"Not in a while," I answered her and she told us how they had met at dinner, a Sizzler, I think it was. The story went on from there, a meandering tale of perceived attraction and bliss, a lot of action packed into just a few hours it seemed to me, so I said, "This all happened tonight?"
"No, this was three years ago," she said.
The bartender, not feeling well, she said, decided to close up early. There were half-hearted groans, a slammed beer bottle, but all succumbed. I watched some of them trudging out, some weaving down the street on foot, others awkwardly sitting astride a bicycle. Their expressions never changed, but I could tell they didn't want to go. I tried to imagine where they went, a game my friends and I used to call "Get into their lives." It was hard to say. All I knew for sure was that they'd be back.