Virgil stopped and spoke, “Where we’re going is a drinking man’s ultimate dream: a bar where it’s always happy hour, where the drinks are free, and there is no closing time. I’ll bet you didn’t think such a place actually existed.”
“Not in this life.” I said.
I thought I heard him laugh, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe he was simply clearing his throat; taking a deep breath for the final push into the darkness.
“Make sure you stay close, now. We’re almost there. I wouldn’t want to lose you now.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t look back either.”
“Sure, you can, if you want to. No point in it, though. There’s nothing to see.”
Nothing to see. Truer words have never been spoken.
He pushed against something in the darkness. A door gave way from the wall, and he ushered me inside.
“Watch your step.” He said.
And I stepped inside. The door closed behind me without a sound. I looked back where the entrance should have been, but I could not see anything resembling a door. It was as if the wall had sealed itself, the way a wound would, without leaving the slightest trace of scab or scar.
“So, what do you think?” Virgil asked.
“It’s tough to tell. The light in here is very strange.” And indeed, it was. A strobe light flashed on and off at regular intervals. It was a kind of black light and its source was from somewhere behind the bar. Consequently, the place seemed colorless and featureless at first. Like a black and white movie image that had failed to fully clarify.
“Don’t you be worrying about that none. ” He was saying.
“Careless and trouble free, is that it?”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Ever it be so humble…”
“Something like that.”
“So, what’s this place called?”
“I call it the Divina Comedia but it really doesn’t have a name. Doesn’t really need one. Call it whatever you like. Grab a drink. Don’t be shy. See, there’s one on the bar for you waiting to go.”
I looked, and I saw that he was right. It was my brand. The right mix and it burned all the way down when I took a good, long swallow. It could be worse than this. A whole hell of a lot worse.
“Take a look around. Make yourself at home. We’re all friends here.”
I certainly hope so, I thought, as I slugged about half of my tall drink down, and placed it on the bar. There didn’t seem to be anyone back there making drinks, but there must have been. The next time I looked at my drink it was filled to where it has been before I had taken my first long swallows.
“What’s with the flashing neon?” I asked.
“I hope you don’t have too many epileptics among the regulars. That constant flashing would have them on the floor rock and rolling like an old-time revival band.”
“They will do that for you.”
“The constant flashing doesn’t get on your nerves?”
“Nope. You get used to it.”
“Nothing gets on your nerves, is that it?”
“I don’t see how I could get used to something like that.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. You’d be surprised what you can get used to when you try. Put your mind at ease and enjoy the sights, and sounds, and, the free drinks. Take a look around. Make yourself at home.”
If this was to be my home away from home, I thought, it was going to be a long, strange, drawn-out affair. At first, focusing was difficult due to the nature of the interior lighting. Although the bar was oddly quiet, you couldn’t help but sense the presence of the other drinkers; the other patrons along the long expanse of the wood. I wondered who had designed this magnificent hand planed surface, who maintained the surface, and kept it waxed, oiled, and hopefully, free of permanent damage from distracted smokers, graffiti carvers; the careless, and the bereft.
The first person I saw was a small, aged man, almost completely bald, wisps of greasy hair lying askew across his bald spot. It was difficult to see his face in the haphazard light. His shadowy form was enveloped in a haze of smoke and dust, as if the light source were from a projectionist’s booth, and the life illuminated, was a flickering form disrupted as soon as it assumed a shape.
What was clear was, his back was permanently stooped, hunched around the shoulders as he sat before a jukebox selector. The cards indicating the song selections were laminated in yellowed plastic stained so badly the hand typed words could not be read. Each card contained eight selections, both A&B sides. The pages could be turned by flipping the selections, one after the other, using small metal rods affixed to the bottom of each page. The whole card assembly was encased inside a small, glass cage smudged, dirty, and greasy with an accumulation of filth only an untold amount of human contact could bring.
The man was transfixed by the device, and was driven to continually place the same quarter in the coin slot at the very top of the machine. The coin traveled the length of the machine, clanging as it went, until it settled noisily into the coin return where it was retrieved, then dropped into the coin slot, and the whole process began anew. Time after time after time.
“It’s what he does.” Virgil said, as if he were reading my mind. “No point in trying to change things you can’t control.”
No point at all, I thought.
A few stools down from the old man, sat a fat woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a filthy, hopelessly out-of-date house dress. The woman was crying noiselessly, not crying so much as weeping, with an intensity so complete, I wondered what it could be she was hearing from the two skinny men sitting on either side of her. Their hands were cupped to an ear on either side of her head, whispering loudly, but inaudibly to everyone but her. The tears rolling down the fat of her cheeks, onto the wattles of her neck, sliding further down to stain the fabric of her faded dress. And the whispering. Always the whispering.
I turned to face the bar, cradling my tall drink between my hands. I noticed a circular, slightly raised platform to the left of the back bar mirrors, on which a cage was placed. Inside the cage was a young female dancer swathed in white bandages as if she were a burn patient, or a mummy whose exposed skin had been covered by white baby powder. Except for her face; that impassive face, coated with black grease paint. And false eyelashes teased unnaturally long; her unnaturally red lips, and her all too white teeth filed to a point.
I couldn’t say for sure if what her body was doing could be called dance. Movement yes, but dance? Whatever it was she was hearing, came from within; a silent inner music, dissonant and mournful, slowly transferred from her brain to her outer limbs. Limbs that slowly translated the cranial impulses into a sluggish, mechanical movement. The pediment she stood upon seemed to give off a kind of damp, dank effusion, a soft glow that served no real purpose, neither illuminating her body, nor emphasizing what it might be doing.
Reflexively, I looked in the back bar mirrors to see what had made a noise behind me in the darker corners removed from the bar. What I saw there disturbed me more than a sudden noise in an unfamiliar place did; the mirrors were alternately concave, convex panels, horribly distorting, and absorbing all the objects that fell within their purview. The glass oxidized, and unclear in places, crowded with smoke, and, shadows, and the unfiltered dust.
Beside the bottles, an ancient, hand crank, ornately designed cash register. A NO SALE ticket prominently displayed inside the glass fronted space for the recorded transactions. A hand lettered sign on either side of the cash machine that said HAPPY HOUR PRICES IN EFFECT: FREE FROM NOW UNTIL…?
Now Until….?, seemed suitably vague. As vague as the indefinable shape behind the wood. I tried to focus on what the unmoving form might have been, but it remained immobile, fixed as a cigar store Indian. I saw a human figure, cloaked in a long-sleeved white shirt with a black garter around the sleeves to keep the cuffs stationery. And then I saw carved wooden cigars in its out-thrust hands. The fake, faded headdress and the folds of the tribal gear made from animal pelts covering the body.
I drank deeply, closed my eyes, and tried to clear my head.
When I opened my eyes, the vision was gone, replaced by a small fun house clown rotating on a metal axis that rocked back and forth, laughing at something so unimaginably funny, nothing could stop the laughter. The silent, wild laughter.
I hoped that if I drank enough, closed my eyes, and, looked again, this vision too would no longer be there. I might think that, might temporarily be relieved of seeing them before me, but the relief would be temporary. I knew that anything I imagined seeing was sure to remain, and fixed in my memory and subject to recall without notice.
Even the young, thin woman dressed in a clinging black evening dress, hunched over the bar, sipping a frothy white drink through a long, plastic straw. Her unnaturally pale skin, sepia tainted by the light, when there was light, oddly present as an after-image, when there was not. I felt drawn to her, but I couldn’t say why, couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen if I acted on my impulsive attraction. All things here being equal and opposed, black as white, white as the black foam of her drink; the strange evanescence of her skin in the encapsulating dark.
I turn from the solitary woman, to look at the other patrons sitting at randomly spaced intervals along the bar. Collectively, they look like Dust Bowl pioneers, refugees from a Steinbeck novel like Grapes of Wrath; their shabby clothes, thin cotton jackets, and pants losing threads, torn and tattered from years of traveling, hard work and abuse. All their shoes were careworn, lost soles, holes where their feet showed through what remained of the leather. I thought of the Dust Bowl poet and how she saw, with unflinching eyes, the hordes of the hopeless struggling against the wind, the dust storms, the heat and privation, struggling Westward to a promised land that became just like where they left only with grass and clear skies, instead of dust and infertile plains.
I thought of how they would discover more unrewarding, back breaking work, for insufficient wages, they would piss away in a place like this, hunched over a bar. A bar that would stink to high heaven of human sweat, rancid beer, and defeat. I thought of the last their few nickels rubbed together, as if somehow there might be luck in it, but all that ever happened was a faceless man behind a bar removed them one after the other in exchange for another, not-cold-enough, tasteless beer. A beer that increased the despair they felt, that hung about them as an extra layer of skin.
They no longer possessed the ability to dream of a better place. Their posture, their demeanor, everything about what they did and did not do, was reflected in their slow, determined, dedicated-to-a-cause-like-no-other, drinking. If they had been drinking for free, the way I had been, it certainly did not show in their mannerisms, the way they turned to look at me as one; their tired, dead eyes inset amid darkened shadows in the leanness of their face and bones. A look that was so far beyond life, even death wouldn’t qualify it.
If I were capable of feeling horror, and, of showing it, I would have done so then. Instead, I turned toward an odd, disruptive noise that came from a pinball machine. The way it was working was oddly fascinating. Despite not having someone to work the push buttons, the flippers and levers, the metal ball traveled the intricate gridwork of the machine on its own, triggering flashing lights, and toting scores as it went. The face of the machine briefly lit, and flared, revealing the face of a laughing carnival clown in a setting that suggested a Coney Island funhouse.
Just as I began to have a sense of the machine, it would stop dead and the steel ball would roll unmolested through the board maze. TILT would register in large capital letters on the board. Just as abruptly the machine self-started and the lights would begin flashing again, a dizzying momentary glowing that would fizzle out in mid-turn. It was as if a crazy, unseen spirit, had been playing. There was no doubt in my mind that he was winning whatever game this was.
Then I hear the hollow sound of heavy, wooden darts sinking into the pitted cork of the boards the players threw their missiles at. They were keeping score with chalk on a board that squeaked as they drew the odd shaped numbers on it. Their uncut nails slide across the skin of the chalk, and the board, and the face of the dart board, as they played, and threw, and watched. Boldly, they drew concentric circles in the false black lights of these neon dreams, and sudden alcoholic reveries of places like this one. Places thrust open, to admit a ravening crowd, the native sons and daughters of the night game players, mole people and worm runners, fully blood lusted and raring to go wherever the next cocktail will take them; even if where they are going is well past the point of no return.
That’s where they’ll find me now. Now that I’ve seen the contents of the self-portrait in oiled cloth on the barroom wall. That painted visage framed in spoiled wood, stained with blood, and alcohol, and tears, gold flecked, in places, to contain the perfect image of the penitents’ bearing torches down the side of a volcanic mountain at near-dusk. The procession leading the unseen spirits from their graves to walk again, on hollowed grounds, inside the sulfuric tainted mists that cling to the blue blackened sky; the red sun sunken into itself behind the black mass of volcanic stone. Those torches borne, as weights, that can never be successfully removed from the chained hands of the living and the dead, chanting as they come and go. The seen and the unseen, animated as I watch, as I try to read the caption inscribed in gold plate that says Los Dias de los Muertos.
What else could it say?
I look back toward the bar, and there I am behind it, raising my carved hands in a toast to the drinkers here, there, and everywhere else. And here I am in the dark of the barroom, returning the gesture, touching glass to glass with others, I have known, or, will come to know. Tilting the one that matters, the one that holds my flavor that I must drink; drink, and drink, and drink from until I can drink no more.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.