Pre-pandemic (just a few days before the world stopped)
Remember when Jan Claude Van Damme escaped from a prison in the desert, met up with an underground fighting ring, got called up as a slave fighter by the elites, and didn’t even change his clothes until halfway through the movie?
Fall 2020. These are the “important people”??? Buncha chrome domes.
Vernon slumped on the beat up, key-scratched, elbow-smudged, cigarette-burned, blade-chopped, liquid- and vomit- and chili-cheese-stained oak bar all by himself. Slurping club soda from a highball – lemon atop the outer rim – he sat knocking out games of video solitaire – drool drops dabbing the screen – in the far left corner of the bar.
The bar’s still, stale air – leftover cigarette smoke settled into the wood grain walls – reeked of loneliness and decay. It was especially prevalent during the daytime, a time when only the maintenance drinkers haunted these halls. Less than 8 hours prior, it was an atmosphere of feigned life and laughter. However, the hangers-on, the ones soon filling coffins instead of barstools, preferred a dusty backdrop of darkness juxtaposed against beer signs, some still in working condition, adorning the walls, and the occasional open door, whenever another lost soul wandered in. A cardboard Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, leaned against a faded Joe Montana as two Schmidt’s beer fish lights hung over a tilted pool table. Plywood lay beneath two legs of the table providing a sad attempt at “leveling the playing field.”
A ceiling fan played air rhythm to Hank Williams’s howl in “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”. Empty bottles and schooners, both powdered with chalk dust, sat atop a brown cigarette machine. A variety of thirty or so unopened beer cans lined a shelf behind the bar. Each can strategically placed in alphabetical order with dates ranging all the way back to the mid-70s — Coors, Hamms, Olympia, Schlitz, Strohs — all with original logos in pristine condition. Attached to each aluminum relic was the ambience of a time when even beer cans required an opener.
“Do your fucking job, Charles!”
Sig wiped down the bar with quick, pointed strokes. It was as if he were attempting to paint a jagged mountain range in Pledge and towel debris. Being the owner, Sig really didn’t enjoy wiping down his own bar. He preferred taking care of more important things, like paperwork, ordering, fixing anything that needed it, and schmoozing with the customers. Especially the ladies. He was self-proclaimed, “lady aficionado.” According to urban legend, many of the scuff marks on the wooden bar top were formed, not just from broken shards of glass and coke-blade chops, but from of finger nails of different sizes and strengths.
According to Charles, another urban legend suggested a secret, underground bungalow somewhere within / connected to the storeroom. Whether Charles knew anything at all was beside the point. It was the principle of imagination: drunks love speculation.
Day drunks had plenty of time to speculate. The “unhireables” — a group name decided on by many of the pre-noon anti-socialites — waxed conspiratorial while normal people worked.
Weekday “Day” drunks: a sad lot of daydreams drowned in desolation.
Sig’s gruff, projecting voice cracked through the sour, dust particle-ridden air.
The stillness of the bar was disrupted by the sound of a toilet flushing. Charles quickly walked out of the bathroom and into the bar.
“Sorry, Sig,” Charles spoke, unable to look Sid in the eyes. “I had the shits real bad last night.”
Sig stared at his employee’s hands.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Charles looked down his own hands.
“I washed ’em,” he said.
“No you didn’t, Char-Uhlz. You didn’t FUCKING wash your hands. You know why I know this, CHAR-UHLZ?”
“Sig. I washed ’em with that alcohol stuff. The shit on the wall.”
Sid’s face began to shade itself a light shade of maroon. Sig did not get the same shade of “beet red” as some. His shades resembled a vodka sauce.
“Come here, Charles…Chuck…Fuck.”
Sig slapped Charles on the back and pushed him along towards the bathroom.
“Sig,” Charles started to stop, “at least let me go in there and spray the bathroom. At least let me do that for you. It fucking stinks in there. It was a rough night…”
“Ok,” Sig shouted through gritted teeth. “Hurry up. Or…better yet… while you are in there, bring me the empty bag of hand sanitizer.”
Charles walked back to the bathroom. The hiss of room spray drifted lightly through the back room. The smell of “clean linen” was still overpowered by the scent of rot and fermentation.
(added on 7/2/19)
Kool-Aid Man is what they used to call him.
Until he had his 4th heart attack, it was a term of endearment even though Carl didn’t see it as such. These days, they called him Couch Man or barstool pigeon. His most familiar bar comrades called him “Kool-Aid” for short.
After the first cardiac arrest, a victim should slow down on all heavy partying, high cholesterol eating, and smoking cigarettes. Carl (aka Kool-Aid) was not a “rule-follower”.
Following his 4th “arrest,” the bar legend emerged that Carl had no blood left in his body. Very few thought it possible that any blood could flow through his tightly clogged arteries. Others say that they heard doctors replaced Kool-Aid’s heart with the inside of a vacuum cleaner in order to keep the smoke that he inhaled from invading the rest of his body. To the handful of wet brains in the bar, this was a rational explanation. To the rest of the world, completely absurd.
Those who knew Kool-Aid the longest wondered how the man was still alive. Along with his daily intake of tar and resin from 40+ cigarettes, Carl’s daily diet consisted of scrambled eggs and toast in the morning, followed by various snacks from Sig’s “bar food” options. His favorites included Cheez-its, chili cheese Fritos, Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, pickled sausages, and Starburst.
Newbies to the day drinking crowd at Sig’s were confused when they were introduced to Kool-Aid. Many expected him to only drink Kool-Aid, or be the token “teetotaler” that every bar has at some point while the person either: A) cleans up his/her act while on paper with the courts from DUI; B) is rehabbing from health issues; or C) just had to give it up but didn’t want to give up the social aspect. Although it should have been obvious by Carl’s size and shape, many did not recall who or what the original “Kool-Aid Man” was.
“I can’t do it, Mike. If I weren’t in a better place right now, I would consider it, but I don’t want to go through the pain again. You need to move on too.”
Christy only stuttered when she was emotional. Although able to maintain composure in face and body, Mike could hear the tremble as her words trailed off.
It had only been six months since they “walked away”, but it seemed “way longer” to Mike. It wasn’t the first time they broke up. It always followed a similar pattern for both of them post-breakup: a series of one-night-stands, followed by a series of late night calls to each other, then back to living with each other, going through the same rollercoaster before burning out in a drunken debacle on some random weeknight when most “normies” (Mike’s counselor’s words) were doing normal things, like participating in community activities, attending their children’s activities, or enjoying a nice, quiet night in after a long day at work.
“I know we said this was going to be temporary for now,” Mike spoke, “but are we just going to put it off another few months, or are you talking about ending it right now?”
Bill sat at one of the low pub tables in the corner.
“What the hell,” Bill said in disgust.
Bill took the lid of his cup and lobbed it on the table. Fumbling around in his shirt pocket, Bill pulled out a clumped up pack of smokes. Pulling a bent, tobacco-leaking cigarette from the cellophane and examined the remaining supplies for the night.
“Three,” he said with a rasping gasp of a laugh. “Three fucking cigarettes left. Welp…sorry lungs.”
He looked around the bar. Walking into a bar at 10 a.m. was not a new thing to Bill. Depending on where he was, walking into a bar at 8 a.m., 6 a.m., or never leaving from his entrance at 8 p.m. the night before, Bill found any time of day to be appropriate for a drink in a room of “like-minded degenerates.”
“You ever think about how much of a waste of time it is to call people by their preferred names let alone preferred PROnounzzz.”
Bill looked to his right. He couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the table across the corner.
“Frankly,” the blobberer blobbed, “I don’t give a fuck what you want to be called, ya see. You can ask me to call you a goddamn hyena for all I care. I may laugh a bit, but if you want to be called a goddamn hyena, I’ll call you a GODDAMN hyena, ya know. Fuck it. Doesn’t matter. But,” he stopped to guzzle then gather his composure, “…BUT don’t try tellin’ me I HAVE to do anything. If you tell me I “HAVE” to call you a hyena, I am going to tell you to go FUCK yerself. Understand?”
Bill raised his brows, rolled up his sleeves, and pulled the cigarette from his lips. He put the cigarette out in front of his face at the same distance he would hold up a small-print menu that he was having trouble reading.
“And don’t get me started on the goddamn pronounz. Pronounz? Pro-fucking-nounz? Come the fuck on!!”
Bill sipped his beer. He wanted to get up, walk over to the table, and join in the conversation. He wanted to feel the freedom that his neighbor was living. He wanted to speak his mind and get approval.
He wanted to not be alone.
“You tell me I have to call you ‘she’ when you are a ‘he,’ I may tell you to go fuck yourself.”
Bill leaned back in his chair and pulled another crinkled cigarette from the pack.
“2 to go. Down the fuckin’ snatch.”
Bill chuckled to himself as he lit the stick.
Bill turned around to face the screaming voice.
Sig stared into Charles’s eyes. Charles’s eyes continually shifted from side to side, trying to focus on anything but Sig’s stare.
Charles turned to the right and stared at the wall.
“Charles,” Sig turned it down to a calmer tone. “I can’t keep paying you if you aren’t going to do your job.”
Charles kept looking towards the wall, his shoulders began to fidget as if he was needing to pee but had to hold it.
“What’s it gonna be, Charles?”
Charles continued to stare at the wall, but his right hand started flicking each individual finger out in a consistent firm rhythm.
“Did you hear me, Charles?”
“I heard ya, Sig. Now can I get back to cleaning?”
To be continued..
(Revisions added 10/7/21)
(First revisions of a piece from 6/26/97)
“I don’t know which is worse,” Bill rasped, cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t get me wrong: being off the booze for six months has been the most responsible thing that I have done, and probably ever will do, in my lifetime. The only problem is now I smoke like a fiend. I can’t, and don’t even wanna, imagine how hard this sumbitchin’ habit is gonna be when I’m ready to quit.”
Bill took a long drag, held it in, and then, like a dragon, forcefully expressed clouds through his nostrils.
Two soft-packs – one slightly crinkled, the other unwrapped – sat nondescriptly next to Bill’s left hand as slumped atop one of Genie’s barstools.
Across the room, a rowdier crowd…
“He makes PUZZZZZZLEZ.”
“He makes puzzles? How does he make any money?”
“You’d have to see it to believe it, dude. He mashes em outta wood and old pictures. Custom!”
“So why is that a big deal? Anybody can make a fuckin’ puzzle.”
Rich reached for two cardboard Coors coasters sitting in front of him.
“Here. Here. I can make a fuckin’ puzzle outta of this shit. MACK…MACK…”
Mack was more than a daytime bartender. He actually hated the title “bartender”.
“Whatta ya want, Richie?”
“Mack. Give some scissors and tape. I’m gonna make a puzzle and make some money today, right here, with these coasters.”
Levi punched Rich’s shoulder.
“Yeah, anyone CAN, but no one DOES. So he makes a decent living. And he gets a crazy amount of milf ass. Of all types.”
Rich leaned back, raised his brows with the big eyes open look.
“Whaaaaaattt???? The puzzle maker is a pussy shaker?”
“Moms with those artistic kids…like Rain man.”
“Yeah, man. Where you been? Those artistic kids that are kind of weird but really really REAALLLY fuckin’ smart. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Sure, whatever. Those kids. They LOVE his puzzles. Most of his money comes from the moms of these kids. Crazy world, huh?”
Rich laughed. “You’d do it. You wish you were doing it now, motherfucker!”
Genie’s: A Neighborhood Joint
Bill meandered into the “regulars'” crowd most days. Close to home. He could, and usually would, get hammered at any time of day, Genie’s normal business hours permitting, and hobble his way home. No driving required.
Bill frequently pondered what he would do if he could travel back in time. Those were the fun days. Foggy days. Friends – no friends. Bottle – no friends. Bottle becomes friend.
In actuality, in hindsight, in reexamining the situation from a “normal” person’s perspective, shit really wasn’t that good. However, life shifts according to one’s habits.
According to some “scientists” somewhere — and there is quite a bit of — in some headline — logic to this information — found on social media, — considering all forms of repetition — a habit takes around 21 days (?) — lead to some form of growth — to embed itself into one’s day to day routines.
Musty, dingy, sour smelling room, why do people seek you out? Society’s petri dish. Place the spores in dark, damp location. Allow to multiply overnight. Like sea monkeys. Or shit.
Bill found striking up a conversation with a 70-something “slumper,” with nothing better to do with his time and his “10 spot” than to sit around and bitch about politics and how things used to be, very relaxing. Ten dollars worth of booze and fellowship. All a waning man needs.
Nick wasn’t 75 years old, but he was turning 6 0 in two weeks, and had enough stories of drunken debauch and blatant insanity to place his “spiritual age” at roughly around 92. As he shouldered up against the far end of the bar, the well-oiled loner’s stories echoed throughout the slightly cavernous setting
“…when it was safe to walk ANY…where,” he slurred.
Nick slurped Cold Gold from a schooner.
“I quit smokin’ when I turned fitty,” Nick said with a gurgle cough. “Then, when I turned fitty-fye, I started smokin’ like a goddamn chimney. We tied one on somethin’ fierce on my 55th, so there wasn’t a better time to start again. Now I can’t go a goddamn day without driving to the Quick Station to pick up another pack.”
Nick took a long gulp from the chalice of perpetual sadness and followed suit with a long, overexaggerated “AAAAHHHH!”
There were only a few things Bill missed about it. Dropping a satisfied ‘AAAHHHH’ at the end of a long draw of beer one of those things. This can’t be done with a whiskey or tequila shot. The only thing that follows a whiskey or tequila shot, at least the whiskey and tequila brands doled out at Genie’s, is the transformation of the imbiber’s face to Melponeme (aka the tragedy face of the two drama masks).
“AAAAHHHH,” trumps drama mask.
“It’s all in the head,” Bill said to his buddy, Paul, two months ago. “If you really want to do something, you have to do it in the mind first. THEN, and only then, will the pieces fall into place.”
It had worked this long; why not keep it going? Bill was feeling the kind of cool that came with his life changes over the past six months. It was a slow burn, and six months was a dust particle in the grand scheme of all the disasters he left behind. Although he knew the wreckage was there, there was less fear.
Bill knew bars weren’t the safest place for him to be. (The bars aren’t the goddamn trigger!) In fact, most of his destructive drinking took place in his basement. However, there was something nostalgic about being back at Genie’s. It felt comfortable. It felt relapse-worthy. It really wouldn’t be that big a deal. Just a shot and a beer back to ease the pain.
It can wait a bit. Relapse isn’t a pool that needs to be cannonballed into right away. Wade into it. No hurry.
“I wish I could do something to help you with your smoking habit,” Nick said while lighting a second Camel, “but I got nothin’. But you are doing a great job going cold turkey on the booze.”
Nick belched deep congestion from the pits of his stomach.
“Once you get to the mastery stage, THEN, and only then, should you attempt to quit smokin’,” Nick followed his comment with a swig of beer. “You’re a young guy, you got to have some kinda crutch. I know if I was still your age, my crutch would be all up in that young tang out there.”
Bill chuckled. Nick stood up.
“These days, my looks have left me, mainly at the hands of my favorite vices, but gone nonetheless,” Nick spoke with slight slur. “However, my poetry has not.”
Nick walked to the end of the bar and stepped upon the bench of a single booth left from the early days of Genie’s. He cleared his gravelly throat, popped his neck, and leaned towards the bartender.
“Wallace, my boy. Will you hand a man a drink to prime his performance?”
Wally poured Old Granddad 3/4 deep into Nick’s glass; two ice cubes and a splash of coke followed. Nick reached his trembly, vein-mapped hand out for the potion.
“Thank you, my friend. I knew your daddy, Wallace,” Nick followed with an extended belch. “Great man.”
Nick took a slug off his glass; Wally rolled his eyes and wiped down the bar.
“Wallace,” Nick swayed slowly from one foot to the other as he spoke, his mind seeming to drift back in time while he was reminiscing verbally, “your father was one HELLUVA man. He used to tear some shit up every now and then, don’t get me wrong.”
He belched liquid fire, coughed, then followed it up with another slug.
“He was a good musician also. Talented sumbitch he was. I wrote all kindsa poems and shit, but we could never get together on an idea that worked. I didn’t have any musical talent. So I just performed, what would now be called…”
He paused and tried to gather his thoughts.
“What the hell is that called? It’s not stand-up…”
A cackle from Maggie, the token bar hag, pierced through the smoke of the bar.
“Spoken WERRD,” she screeched.
“Spoken word, that’s it,” Nick pointed at her. “Wallace, get Maggie a drink. And, Maggie, listen closely to my words, deary. You may decide the ugly mug is worth a romp after my performance art.”
She cackled at a higher pitch than before, then yelled, “I got nothin’ else to do, stud.”
Nick raised his left hand, put his right, glassed hand to his lips, sipped, gasped, and paused.
“And now, my friends, a nugget a wisdom in poem form.”
“Bell Rings outside.
The closet door wide open;
No one looks inside except those who desire; those who do not fear!
Those who are alone —
Bill looked around the room while Nick rambled his poem aloud. Most were listening without looking. An occasional cough or a “clinkle” of ice to glass disrupted an otherwise silent crowd. Nick was a nobody outside of Genie’s, but he was a “goddamn visionary” in front of the day crowd.
“A bell rings outside,
and those who know will hear it.
Already the time has come to a point
The hangers on see
The hangers on do
what they do not want to happen.”
——— (Intermission) ———
“You show me one person…” Nick pronounced with bravado enough to draw the attention of a few patrons, “Just ONE…who doesn’t have something bringin’ ’em down. Some albatross hangin’ ’round his neck. Show ME ONE!!”
Nick blinked his eyes. His mouth: rice cakes. His lips glued to his tongue as it attempted to deliver a moisture-less swipe across them. Wipers across a dry windshield.
“You can’t! Nobody is a clean fucking slate!”
Nick looked to the ceiling, a bit off kilter with inebriation. A drunken demon yell followed.
“Aint a fuckin’ God…Damn,” Nick slur-belched, “…one of ’em!”
As his right knee buckled enough to put him off balance, Nick placed his hand upon a ledge housing the base of the “Daily Specials and Other News” chalkboard — the one that had not been changed in at least 20 years; the one that has not been cleaned in at least 20 years; the one that has fallen upon many drunken soldiers over the past, at least, 20 years — and tremored his body back to a semi-steady stance. As he brought himself to a slow, slightly circular sway, Nick grasped a paper “Coke” cup from the bar. He held the open end of the cup to his right eye and bounce-shifted his head towards the nearest light, as if he were looking through a kaleidoscope.
A few of the regulars chuckled at the awkward, yet fairly normal, behavior. Bill occasionally scanned peripheral for any negative harbingers of sloppy, non-choreographed violence. Fortunately, the day drinkers were usually too intoxicated to act upon threats of physical harm cast upon each other. The arguments, albeit frequently illogical and melodramatic, would get heated enough to raise voices, invoke profanity-infused threats, and cause the occasional attempts of standing to fight, only to be followed by gravity-induced falls backwards (or sideways, depending upon the level of intoxication) into booths, chairs, and floor tiles.
The clunk of a heavy bottomed scooner resonated through the bar’s wood.
“Helllll, NO, I ain’t racist if I laugh at a cultural difference,” Terry bellow-burped. “See…gAWD Damnit…this is what I don’t get about this so-called ‘advanced’ generation with all your gAWd Damn gadgets and your gAWWWD Damn stupid mustaches and shit.”
Meet Max: a 20-something, hipster wannabe, trust-fund baby wasting his parents’ hard-earned life savings in the same run-down, sour-smelling dive bar most weekday afternoons.
“Well, my wise sage, what is your definition of racism then?”
Bill couldn’t avoid eavesdropping. It was a blessing and a curse. The daydreaming and the eavesdropping kept him sane and insane at the same time. It was some weird plane of existence that made life so great and confusing and bearable.
“Firsss,” Terry stutter-spat, “your sarcasm is as poorly executed as your stupid gAWD damn beard. I ain’t a racist if I laugh at a cultural difference because I am not making fun of the culture altogether. You kids can be so gAWD damn ignorant sometimes.”
Max raised his eyebrows mockingly and pursed his lips. It was a learned strategy from all his time wasted watching The Daily Show and other virtue-signaling, pseudo tongue-in-cheek, “look at how important we all our” brainwashing. He saw his opportunity to preach.
“According to my Sociology professor,” Max quipped, “you would be labeled a racist of the subconscious kind.”
Terry, mid-sip, spat beer onto Max’s suede-elbowed jacket.
“What the fuckka you talkin’ about? Sociology professors don’t know a thing these days. They may as well be called “Anti-Sociology” professors. You bring your gAWD damn Sociology professor in here and I’ll debate the fuck outta him then kick his gAWD damn ass.”
Terry took another gulp from his schooner and slammed it back on the bar.
“It ain’t a gAWD damn racist act to laugh at something different that your own experience. Its laughing at life in general, you smug idiot.”
Max shuffled in his seat.
“When I laugh at the way a black guy…”
“When I laugh at the way a BLACK guy… or a BROWN guy, or a gAWD damn GREEN, YELLA, or MAROON motherfucker tells a funny story about something that happened in his life, I ain’t laughing because I’m racist. I’m laughing because it sounds funny in my brain. I can’t apologize for that. I can’t say I’m a racist for that.”
Terry paused, closed his mouth while holding a fist up to lightly pound his chest, and belched.
“I laugh at mannerisms, sayings, fashion choices, and gAWD damn food preferences because it’s different than me. Maybe I’m making fun of myself for not being that funny or worldly or whateverthefuck? You ever think of that, smart boy?”
Max smirked and sipped his scotch.
The falling out with his family sent Terry to other states.
Terry left home at 17.
Terry never really settled down. After moving out on his own at 17, Terry’s “jobs” included a drug run with a friend that ended them both up in jail for a while.
From then on, Terry lived for years out of his car. Stolen food and begged gas money, along with the use of public facilities and the occasional cheap motel on a strong day of collections allowed Terry to maintain this lifestyle for quite some time.
Bill scanned the room, looking for a reason to convince his brain of the camaraderie he was missing out on. His eyes scanned the booths, barstools, and back room wall sliders, but nothing pulled his eyes to a stop. As he brought his eyes back to the attention of the Jaegermeister cooler, his ears tuned to eavesdrop mode. Behind him, a 20-something hipster wannabe trust-fund baby wasting his parents’ hard-earned money in a dive bar at 2 in the afternoon, was talking on his cell phone.
“…and that’s just the point I’m trying to convey to you,” he said in a raised ‘attempt at a whisper’ voice, “I won’t put up a fight for Misty because I know exactly what is going to happen – one of two things. The first is part of what has already begun. She will go right back to him and it will last. He will be a new man and will really love her. He may have realized that a girl who has that much love for him is worth holding onto. Whether he loves her or feels insecure without her really may not matter because either way this could be good for his love life and/or self-confidence.”
“The second option is probably less desirable for all parties involved. She will change her mind after a couple of weeks or a couple of shots, whichever comes first. Then, she will text me.”
“What the fuck,” he said. “It’s already happening. I gotta call you back, dude. Uh, huh. Yeah. Ok. I’ll call you back.”
Kids are so stupid, Bill thought, while sliding another cigarette from the pack.
Chapter 2: Sam’s Shanty
A musty, broken down bar in the middle of the city. It is around the middle of March in southeast Chicago. It is a little after dark, with the darkness barely dimming outside the rectangular windows, but dark enough to welcome the warm glow of the street lights. The window overlooks the rain dampened streets. “Sam’s Shanty” is written in red lettering with black outline. A bulky, red Budweiser sign lights up the window. The bar is not too inconvenient for business persons working the area and, regardless of its appearance, the “Shanty” tends to pack them in on Friday and Saturday nights.
A man walks by the window, as the camera tracks him backwards in through the door to a seat at the bar. Presently, there are only five people in the bar:
Sam: the bartender / owner; a fat man, standing about five foot ten, with a girthy 250 pounds resting upon his bones. Sam sported a Rollie Fingers ‘stache and sweat stains peeking out of his red Budweiser t-shirt
Heather: semi-attractive, thirty-something barfly who seems to permanently affix herself to the “Shanty.” Eighties-style blonde hair – bleached, poofed up, black roots — fell slightly upon the straps of a revealing, yet slightly soiled, party dress. She was smoking Misty cigarettes and drinking a vodka and (smuggled in due to her picky tastes) her own grapefruit juice.
King Dong: our protagonist in this chapter. Dong refuses to answer to his birth name (Nicholas). He’s a semi-pro wrestler by night (every other Saturday at the Arab Shrine Temple), a personal trainer by trade (for now), and a wannabe pornstar. He sits at the bar, asks for a beer and a shot of bourbon with honey and lemon, all the while wearing sunglasses even though the darkness closes in on the bar. Dong’s faded NAVY sweatshirt and black stocking cap paint him the stereotypical image of a Rocky wannabe. He is a fairly big guy. He’s not fat, but not overly muscular either. His athletic build and short, almost buzzed, black hair give Dong the look of a rough dude, but his easygoing nature, especially when one gets to know him, make him one of the barroom favorites among all sots, suits, slobs, and sluts walking through the door of the “Shanty”.
Two otter people dwell in a red booth towards the back of the bar. Their idle chatter provides a slight buzz for background noise.
Dong has a black left eye and a few “scratches” (mat or rug burns) on his cheek
(Music in the background is “Low Down Man” by Squirrel Nut Zippers)
Sam: Whatta need, guy?
Dong: Got Schmidt’s? (He takes off his stocking cap)
Sam: Enh-Enh (shaking his head side to side)
Nick was not as “adored” by the night crowd at Genie’s, but Sam’s Shanty welcomed misfits like Nick with open arms and open coffers.
“And now…,” Nick bellowed into the karaoke microphone. “…for another WERRRRRD.”
With a clearing of the throat followed by a tip of the glass, Nick’s demeanor evoked what he would refer to as “thespianic”.
She laughed yesterday
A pause. Glass clinkled.
so did I inside.
but it didn’t show
so I liked to think she smiled…subtly..she smiled and I tried not to notice…
Pause. Nick waved his glass to Winslow. The signal worked most weeknights since the numbers of late night lurkers was low. Karaoke night was a different animal.
“Only one more, Nick,” Winslow yelled. “Then you can get your ass down off the stage and sit your ass down.”
Nick briefly broke the “thespianic” trance to say, “You are my hero, dear Winslow.”
Winslow had Shelly take a glass of Nick’s standard (Early Times whiskey and Tab) up to him. Nick proceeded to clear his throat, tip his glass, and return to, what he frequently referred to as, “thespianism”.
…but things change. And it didn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter. Anyway.
Nick leaned down to place his glass on a table near the stage.
It happened and it won’t be the same. Feels good though…even though it shouldn’t…so they tell me.
Nick pointed to Shelly as she picked up glasses from a freshly emptied table.
It shouldn’t…but it does…their words go through BOTH ears…and ALL that is left…
Nick’s posed in, what he frequently referred to as, “praying mannequin” to emphasize the pause.
…is a though…a PONDering, nagging notion in the brain…like pulling on a string of uncertainty.
Nick held his empty glass to Winslow while maintaining the “praying mannequin”.
“No,” Winslow yelled.
The glass shook again, emphasizing the clink of ice.
“No,” Winslow repeated.
“Oh, I’ll get him one, Winslow,” Shelly sighed.
“My dear, Shelly,” Nick boomed into the microphone. “I will provide you with a tongue lashing at your call, my lass.”
“Don’t be a sicko, Nick,” Shelly yelled. “I’m buying your pitiful ass a drink so you don’t seize out on the way home, ya drunken ass!”
She handed a drink up to Nick.
“Of course, my dear,” he winked. “Of course.”
Sip. Clear throat. Thespianism.
When will it happen. Anytime? Will that laughter return?
Cough. Sip. Belch.
over and over. Never growing any older. Never remaining the same. A personal limbo. A literal hell. A teasing temptation…
It keeps the soul young. And all the visions…
Complete silence. Nick bowed.
Chapter 3: Gina n’ Bill
Gina rolled onto Bill’s left arm, grasped his right hand and started slapping him in the face with it.
“Quick slapping yourself,” she talk-laughed in a baby voice. “Hey…quit slapping yourself.”
Bill stayed deadpan, looking up at the popcorn ceiling. In certain light, the ceiling sparkled randomly. He leaned his head to the left and noticed a different set of sparkles each twist of his neck. He could close one eye while leaving the other closed, then reverse eyes. Each time, a different gleam of hope. Or not.
“Hey,” Gina said, puffing her lips into a pouty face. “What is wrong?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know…you just seem kind of…distant tonight,” Gina sighed. “You didn’t really say much at dinner, you didn’t talk much on the way home, and now you don’t even seem interested in sexing me up.”
Gina was adorned in a loose, red t-shirt and boxers. His boxers. His Darth Vader boxers. Bill loved when she dressed like this. Slutty Vader-kitten. It always made him horny, yet very self-conscious of his closet “Darkside”.
Not tonight though. He didn’t know. He just didn’t feel aroused. He didn’t really feel anything at all.
“Bill…,” Gina began lightly rubbing his forearm, “will you at least talk to me? Now?”
“I’m sorry, ” Bill said. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, baby. I just feel…I don’t really know how I feel. It’s hard to explain, but it isn’t you, Gina. It’s me.”
Chapter 4: Wedding Vapors
“Let me make dinner for you,” Brian exhaled within a cloud of smoke.
The water pipe he had been smoking on was smooth. One rarely realized the copious amounts of smoke wafting into his/her lungs until the exhale.
He held out the glass for Carrie, who was sitting across from him with a puzzled look on her face.
“I don’t know, Brian,” she said, followed by a slight pitch variation that was barely noticeable unless you really knew Carrie.
“What do you mean, ‘I don’t know,” Brian asked her. “All I’m asking is to make dinner for you. It isn’t like I am asking you to marry me. I just haven’t seen you in a while and would like to make some food to go along with our convo. You do eat, do you not?”
Bill stood with hand still prominently projecting the water pipe into her direction, eye brows raise with a slight turn of the head. A boyish gesture. The same gesture that always got her back in their younger days.
Remaining composed and as deadpan as she could muster, Carrie snatched the glass aways from Bill, pulled her favorite blue lighter — the one with two astronauts standing on the moon — and lit the bowl with the determination of one who may never inhale again.
It was her nerves. They always tied themselves in knots when she felt trapped.
The flame erupted violently from its metal encasement, then slowly bowed to the bowl, as if it were bidding its audience “adieu”.
She quickly pulled her mouth away from the cylinder, holding the smoke in her lungs, while light puffs rolled slowly from her nostrils.
Brian made the face of a bulldog, protruding his bottom teeth, saliva gathering at the corners of his mouth.
Smoke billowed from her nose and open mouth followed by a fit of coughing, gasping for breath, and laughing hysterically.
He still knew how to make her laugh. Make her smile. No matter how bad her mood, when he was around she lit up. It sometimes took longer than other times, but it happened nonetheless. Her brown eyes would clinch to slits. She never seemed to blush, which was a quality that many guys would shy away from. It was a form of poker-face that made men slightly insecure. Instead of the traditional reddening of the cheeks and/or flushing of the neck and “Breastal area” (Brian had a knack for renaming anatomy), Carrie would radiate like the glow of a sunset. The whites of her eyes would peek through clouds: two suns simultaneously breaking the storm.
Chapter 5: Sam’s Shanty (part deux)
Dong: Bud Lime?
Dong: Ice House?
Sam: Enh-Enh (this time shaking his head and right index finger side to side)
Chapter 6: Cute Kitty
(12/3/16 — first draft)
Misty: Ohhhh!!! SUCH. A. CUTE. KITTTTEEEEEE!!!!!!!!
Misty squealed, pointed at, and leaned down to pet “The Chiller”. “The Chiller” was Mike’s orange cat who he found in a drainage ditch 2 years prior. “The Chiller” was sprawled across Mike’s scuffed brown(-ish) recliner next to the kitchen.
Misty picked up “The Chiller” with ease. She showed more enthusiasm than the cat. “The Chiller” remained calm…emotionless…stoic.
Misty: (Holding “The Chiller” up to her face) And what’s this widdle guyzz naaame???
“The Chiller” soaked up Misty’s love with droopy eyelids and exposed left upper fang. Until he met Mike, “The Chiller” was an alley cat and, from the looks of his various battle wounds, he was a fighter. The exposed left upper fang protruded slightly outward, like the second or third layer tooth of a great white shark. It was endearing yet completely ridiculous.
Mike: “The Chiller”
Misty: “Why “yes” this ISSSS a little chiller, now aren’t you babeeeeee.”
Misty nuzzled into the face of “The Chiller”. “The Chiller’s” attempt at detachment gave way to Misty’s soft nuzzling of her nose into his face. “The Chiller” may have even show slight sings of arousal had he been intact.
Mike: It’s actually “The Chiller”.
Misty: That’s the widdle baby’s name? Awwww. Chillll-er. (She held “The Chiller” up to look into his droopy eyes) You are soooo adorable, Chiller.
Mike: It’s Theeee Chilller, but whatever. He seems good with it from the looks of things. You got the touch
Chapter 7: Drunk Bitch
“Ugh,” Sara squealed, her tone shifting from falsetto to low grumble in 3 seconds flat. “You dis-GUST-ing PIG! How is that possible?”
Will blushed. He was caught off guard by the quick release of gas. He felt it coming for 20 minutes, but thought it would pass into a series of unnoticeable
Chapter 8: Belly Boy’s Melancholia
Silence swept over the small ripples of the stagnant office workers. All of them had their heads either buried in books or magnetized in parallel position to the computer monitors in front of them.
“Steven Chancey? Are you here, Chancey?”
The consistent, persistent insistence of workers fingering keys producing an orchestra of clicks, blurs, and soft bleeps replied with indifference. No human voice replied, as if the human city in the room had transformed into robotic life. Either Chancey was not in the office, or he was so engulfed in the hypnotic zone of industry that no human voice could cut through.
Chancey’s office was a good representative sample of the own he grew up and still lived in.
The town of Herndon was locked inside a wintertime waterball (aka “snow globe”). The only exception would be that this waterball would have been frozen solid had it been left outside the door on Ms. Baska’s porch when she cam in from grocery shopping. It would have frozen and shattered into pieces of glass shrapnel.
Chapter 9: Greg and the Path to Nowhere
(7/4/97 — first draft)
Greg sat in a booth next to the jukebox. He always wanted to be as close to the music as possible. A semi-crowded place, like Genie’s could be at any given point in the evening, kept a music lover from getting the full effect of a tune. He wanted to his choices clearly.
There weren’t many women in the bar at this point. Music diverting Greg’s attention from loneliness to daydreaming of the glory moments to come as the crowd heated up and Greg increased his BAC (Blood Alcohol Content). The tunes kept him going. They kept him in rhythm with the night. Most importantly, these tunes prepared him for what may come and will always be around in case does not happen.
According to Greg, it was “all in the music, man.” He had trouble putting his feelings into words, but he felt everyone understood this philosophy.
“Music really is an anthology of every listener’s life,” Greg told his creative writing class one evening. “Regardless of the style – rock, rap, country, classical, jazz, blues…whatever. Music is the key to the universe. Music makes memories. Music triggers emotions. Music is the life of every social occasion.“
Some of Greg’s colleagues and friends argued various facets for his perspective, but Greg saw their arguments at “petty bullshit”.
“Our lives are one big movie,” Greg told his class at the beginning of the semester. “The music we hear is the soundtrack. The music we run across in life should be recorded so that, at the end of our lives, we can go back and resurrect corresponding memories. Since the mind surpasses most boundaries that are enforced in our physical lives, music is the impressionistic art form that compliments each one of our ‘life moments‘.”
Greg’s mind ran “a million miles a second” and his “preferred tunes” helped keep his thoughts as light as possible. When able to purge his thoughts, mainly the negative self-views, Greg was able to pick up women easier.
Greg hated the phrase “picking up” because it threw the spontaneity of of going to a bar out the window. Every girl knows they are going out to get “picked up” on; every guy know that, if given the chance, he is going to “pick up.” There are never any real surprises when it comes to this mating ritual. There were rarely any true “romantics” anymore.
The guys thought Greg was just shy, that he had taken his break up with Tami too seriously and had lost interest in women altogether. Greg’s cousin, Tim, expected Greg to come out of the closet within the next few years due to his lack of “wool-pulling”.
This wasn’t the case.
Greg was a little tore up about the Tami breakup for a few months. He had been living with her for a little over two years when he came back from a work trip to be presented with the “slap-in-the-face” story about her sleeping with her ex-boyfriend, Marlon, for the past few months. After the argument came to a head, Tami tried to blame Greg for her indiscretions.
“It’s not my fault that you go out of town for weeks on end,” Tami screamed at Greg through a flurry of fake tear wipes.
Greg knew the tears were fake. He saw them many times before, and usually fell for them, but not this time.
“I need to get laid every now and then,” Tami drunkenly slur-cried. “It isn’t like you were here to satisfy me. You haven’t been satisfactory for a while now. Who knows? You probably have some other side-pieces in California or Florida or wherever the FUCK you head to for work each time you leave me, you selfish son-of-a-bitch!“
Tami screamed like a five-year-old brat that wasn’t getting the piece of candy she saw in the grocery story check out line.
He didn’t mean to slap her; it was strictly a knee-jerk reaction. Before he knew it, his hand crossed both cheeks causing her nose to sway and lips to cringe back around her teeth. His hand slipped straight through the fake tears she was crying. Straight across the ace he had woken up and kissed so many mornings over the past few years. Or maybe this was the other face she had worn at other times. He didn’t know. He didn’t care. He slapped her as hard as he could
Fast forward 6 months later, Greg sat in a booth by the jukebox at Genie’s sipping given and tonic, occasionally sucking on the lime wedge flowing around his class.
“A watered down drink for a watered down guy,” Greg toasted himself internally. He didn’t want others to see him as a fool or a schizophrenic.
Chapter 10: Drafting Nick
He sat in front of his computer.
Beck. (2008). Chemtrails. On Modern Guilt. Danger Mouse.
Beck. (2015). On Dreams. Capitol Records.