by Deckard Croix
The Plebeian beside me gave a look I could not interpret. His gray hair reflected the too-bright light, his plain white shirt reminding me of hospitals and childhood rambles after Sunday school, cookouts in the Irish-green countryside; impossibly green, impossibly white.
He gave me the glance again, this time sidelong as if unsure of what I would do if I noticed. I didn’t let on that I’d noticed, but concentrated on catching the eye of the elusive bartender who finally beamed in my direction.
“Your usual?” the bartender asked and I nodded the affirmative. I had never seen him before but you can never go wrong with assumed familiarity especially when it comes to bartenders – daddy taught me that, god bless his self-induced exile.
I sat back and surveyed the room. There were the typical patrons one might find at any bar: the ones playing billiards, the ones discussing sports or politics, and my kind, the silent ones. I avoided meeting eyes with the white-shirted Plebeian once again. Like most Plebeians, he drank Bud.
A shot of vodka and a bottle of Boddington’s were set before me and I downed the one and nursed the other respectively. The burn fizzled along my throat canal and I fought back the urge to cough though desperation almost overcame it. I emptied the beer in three breathtaking gulps. There’s something ethereal about that first drink of the day; always more disorienting than the last, more sacred than the next.
The game was on the big screen above the bar and I, for lack of something better to do, watched it. Several sweaty men raced up and down a court, hopping and hurling balls as if it mattered, fans cheered, coaches fumed, commentators waxed philosophical – all the things about sports that consistently bored me.
It was ladies’ night but there were no ladies to speak of, only old men and a band tuning up on the stage in the back. A bar full of white trash, though I suppose all of us are trash, but I especially dislike the white ones. Without thinking, I mentioned this to the Plebeian beside me.
He turned and regarded me with beady brown eyes, more black than brown. He seemed to want to smile but was unsure if he should. Perhaps my outburst was a breach of confidence amongst white brethren; I turned back to watching the game.
The bartender came around again, “Same?”
I nodded and set some bills on the bar.
“So, you uh…is your team winning?” asked the Plebeian.
I turned to him in confusion. I felt the brows tighten, the eyes focus, the nostrils flare ever so slightly as was my wont when confused. Perhaps he found this disturbing for he leaned back a little.
“Huh?” then I remembered I was watching the game, “Oh, no…I mean, I’m not really rooting for any particular team; just as long as the underdog wins I’m happy.”
He smiled then at that, “It’s good to root for the underdog.”
I returned the smile artificially, “It is.”
He proffered a hand, “I’m Tim.”
Hesitantly, I gave him my name and my hand.
“How do you know which one’s the underdog?” he asked eventually.
“I don’t follow basketball much,” he began, “I used to play in high school though… you know, locally, nothing big.”
I nodded in agreement.
Someone scratched in the billiard game ten feet away and a resounding, “Christ!” was heard. Another laughed and rescued from a corner pocket the white ball checkered with use.
“You can’t play worth shit, you know that?” that other mocked.
The first, apparently deaf, leaned forward intently for a moment then smiled and responded, “Rarthru tu thiths!”
The bartender brought Round Two. I downed the one and nursed the other. I felt the eyes of the Plebeian and decided that this particular juncture of the game was especially interesting.
The band began playing in earnest then, their sound check apparently through. People moved from the bar to tables set up around the stage – I was one of them. More out of curiosity than interest, I took my bottle to a vacant table in the corner and settled myself there cloaked in darkness and smoke from the fog machine with only a thin ray of red light resting languidly on my forearm.
It was a cover band, as was to be expected in a place like that, and I found myself absent-mindedly scanning the patrons around the stage. There were women present, but all of them born before 1960 it seemed. I sighed, nursed the Boddington’s, and listened to the next song in the setlist.
I applauded along with the rest of them as I swung off the stool and made my way back to the bar. Catching the bartender’s attention, I traded the dead soldier for fresh fodder.
Now came the Third Round and I treated them the same. I sat at that end of the bar for awhile, listening to the band stumble their way through Jane’s Addiction, and pretended to watch the game.
A burly chap beside me jumped back in his stool and shouted, “Oooh!” as a player missed a 3-pointer. He turned to me to see if I saw what he saw.
“I know,” I agreed, “Horrible.”
He laughed and said something about centers shooting threes.
The band began to play another tune, this time Marcy Playground. I sighed and got the bartender to bring Round Four. He brought it and I downed the one and brought the other back with me to my table. I stretched my legs out in front of me and crossed them; the beer went down easy and soon was gone.
A table of middle-aged women were staring attentively at the players on the stage, engulfed in fog, a lightning storm of multi-coloured lights painting ethereal tattoos. The guitarist played as if electrocuted, his body splashing the shadows and light with plaid and corduroy. The drummer hardly moved at all, wrists bent, eyes closed, seemingly impervious to the fog machine which sprayed him directly in the face from time to time.
My mind was getting away from me I realized and ordered another shot. It was a technique I often employed to counteract an overactive mind. When I was younger I welcomed such feverish processes (often augmented with a seven-percent solution), but now things were different and the world needed to be calmed.
Five. Six. Seven. It was a slow night and that spells misery.
I wanted to be coherent later so I thought I should take it slow for awhile. The night was getting better; the people were finally filing in. Not being one to make a parade of myself, I retreated away from the bar to a table outside, on the deck.
Tim the Plebeian was there smoking. He smiled at my appearance.
“Long time no see,” he said.
I sat at his table, digging out my own cigarettes from the labyrinth of a pocket in too-tight jeans that were faded and torn.
He indicated my bottle, “I’ve never had one of those before, any good?”
I shrugged, “It’s better than…Miller.”
He smiled and dragged.
Without success, I leaned back in the chair and chugged the bottle.
“It seems I left my cigarettes in my car…could I?” I hated myself for suggesting it.
“Oh sure,” he blinked enthusiastically at the box on the table.
I grabbed one and thanked him, lit it and inhaled. I set my lighter on the table; a copper glow glinted off the pagoda on its face.
“I only smoke when I have nothing to do,” I confessed.
He chuckled, “That’s not good.”
“I’ve smoked ever since I was…your age,” he confessed.
“Yeah, old habits die hard.” He took my lighter and began tapping the side of the table with it, completely out of time with the music inside.
“You know, a friend from Japan gave me that lighter,” I mentioned off-hand.
His brows lifted, “Oh?” He examined it closely, in the near darkness. He set it back on the table after awhile and lit another cigarette with his own lighter and stared off into space. I made some excuse about needing to hear bad music die directly, grabbed my lighter, and went back inside.
To think that man has come to this: the involution of his celestial birth, barbarity with aspirations of intellectualism and taste, and the aesthetic insistence that one’s perspective is relevant. I drank to that; it is something one can’t avoid drinking to, perhaps we are driven to. Like the self-destruction of humanity which will inevitably occur, the hard liquor coated my belly, my brain driven to die, my liver accepting death gracefully.
I wasn’t going to make it to closing time…I would remain another hour. I ordered another shot to mark time. It came. I drank and time continued in that pendulum arc.
I ordered a shot every hour. The tenth. The eleventh. The twelfth. The thirteenth. The bar still hadn’t closed. It seemed I had been there since the dawn of time. The bar that never slept. Everyone was still there and the band was still playing. The women were curiously absent and the Plebians seemed to be increasing in number.
Fourteen. Freedom is here – this is my charity. The music was a cacophonous whir of sound, ingrained in my brain’s electricity; a thousand twinkling instruments. The bartender was saying something, someone was laughing, the few bulbs lighting the bar were eight thousand suns all burning for attention. I slammed some bills on the bar instinctively and it resonated like a shrill scream in a cave. Heads turned in fright and confusion; my own face must have been a mask of bewilderment. I was focusing then on establishing my footing, my journey to the door. The Plebian was suddenly there but I shoved him aside into darkest eternity.
“Who are you?!” I accused him and he backed away in terror, the sweat on his upper lip a thick, pasty memory of former tensions.
The patrons were staring in hatred or whatever euphemistic word one prefers to communicate calculated disdain. Bottles were aligned at their lips; the liquid, an unholy ceremonial brew, teased their nostrils with hop-ridden senility. The universe was divided into many ignorant forms; unconscious forms entertaining the illusion of consciousness.
I flung open the door and stumbled outside; the crickets were deafening, the air was hot. The lampposts lighting the parking lot were resolute. Gazing into their eyes was like gazing into the unblinking eye of the sun. Blindness followed and I collided into my car, a golden hand which was my own patted it like a lover. I took a moment to allow my sight to return and counted fourteen preferential trees surrounding the lot, always green, but that night they were black. It seemed to me then that I had taken a double shot of perfection; I was at the precipice of consciousness, looking down into the maw of infinity.
I dropped my keys and sat on the pavement as I picked them up and unlocked the door, opened it. I clutched it and with uncanny strength, arose to my feet and rested there a moment, eyes closed, leaning on the door like a swinging crutch.
Home seemed so far away. I would be hurtling through the pitch, struggling to stay between the lines of decency and nonchalance. No one would know if I was dead by morning, no one would call. My death would be met with scorn and derision for taking a chance, for gambling with my instincts.
The car beside me started up, its engine revved. I turned my head with difficulty to see it speed off into the darkness; they would make it home safely and in the morning they would receive a call to ensure they were safe. I sighed and slid into the passenger’s seat, closing the door with a slam that rung in my ears.
The car breathed as the ignition was brought to life and suddenly the night was an unfamiliar creature. I shifted into drive and coasted forward, whirling the wheel around, unconcerned with objects in front of me, avoiding them with sudden jerks and a muffled chuckle. I rolled down the window and let the hot air pummel my face as my speed increased and the night flew by. There was no one on the road and I felt lucky, allowing the car to swerve too far to the left, across the line. The street lights became less frequent, lighthouse beacons in a smog of insobriety.
My golden hands gripped the wheel. I was leaning forward in concentration, keeping the vehicle between the lines. I was nearly home. I was home. I was inside. I breathed easy for the first time in eternity. I vomited. I slept. I awoke. No one called.