“Shift of Doom” by Alan Catlin

"Shift of Doom" by Alan Catlin in The Chamber Magazine

“A moving shadow means more to us than a body at rest. We are no longer taken in by a fixed grin.  We know only death has a rictus.” –Joseph Roth

“God made time; he made a dreadful lot of it.” –Patrick O’Keefe

Five o’clock in the morning, watching the storm leaving a slick jacket of ice on Western Avenue.  Nothing moving at all, except the sagging phone lines, the overburdened barren tree limbs, icicles forming as I watched.  I wasn’t going anywhere.  Not for a long time.

When I was in college, a hundred million years ago, my friends and I used to fantasize about being snowed in for the duration at our favorite bar, drinking, and carrying on, until we were beyond comatose.  What we were planning to use for money all that time, why we thought the owner and staff would abide our presence for a long siege, in a bar, for an Upstate winter, escapes me now. As did, what we planned to do once we reached the gibbering stage, once we reached the point of severe alcohol poisoning, and the end of consciousness.  I suppose, we felt that if something abstract, like actual death happened, our passage into that other place would be a happy one; we’d be drunk and presumably that would be a good thing, in that world, as it was in this one. 

Presuming there was another world. Presuming we woke up in it, and it would be a better place than where we currently were. And that this better place would have endless Happy Hours and theme Beer Blasts for us to while away eternity drinking, telling raunchy jokes, and reciting obscene limericks, making up new ones when the old supply had been exhausted, pausing in our revelry occasionally to get laid, or, stoned, as the occasion arose.

We’d always be twenty-one in those days, and there would be no threat of being drafted into a foreign war no one in their right mind agreed with.  The company would always be agreeable, and there would be no finals, at least, not the kind we couldn’t handle.  The weather might be awful, but with time, this too would pass, and there would be variations on a theme to enliven the routine. Variations involving outdoor recreations, loosely organized sporting events, and an endless supply of beer, hard whiskey, and drugs.  

Best of all there, would be no killer hangovers, or nothing that some hair-of-the-dog-that-bit me, couldn’t cure.  Perpetually wasted, or working on becoming so, seemed like nirvana. In real life, basically being drunk and stoned, perpetually, for twenty years or more, had its downside that got worse with age. Some of us had never completely given up on the idea that this was the ultimate desirable state of being. 

Even after we were hooked, and, had no other choice, and a million excuses for why we were not hooked, and how being hooked and able to feed the beast, was a strange comfort offered by profession.  That the profession chose us, instead of the other way around, was not readily apparent.  Especially not at an unseemly hour in the morning, marooned after hours in a bar, with no way out, and home an impossible distance away from where you were.

The only sensible thing to do seemed to be, settle in and wait it out, beer in one hand, a large, very large, scotch on ice, with a splash of water nearby for creature comfort. Especially, once the power lines snapped under the burden of the storm’s leavings, and the supply of palatable stuff for drinks, would eventually be exhausted.  The last weather advisory suggested a stalled front, untold inches of ice, followed by extreme cold and then.  Then the darkness.

Ice on the phone lines.  Just a matter of time before they went as well.  Who would you call anyway?  No one was going anywhere until the weather allowed them to.  Just my luck: first a freak snowstorm in October that crippled the region, and now a February ice storm.  Only on my shift. The shift of doom.  Fate’s three ring circus, the freak parade, as the stoners used to call it, as they’d settle onto stools in the far corner of the bar, where the best view would be. For the inevitable show that would take place, where they could clearly observe whatever weirdness I had brought with me.  No one else did that as well as I did.  I was the best.  Everyone said so.  I had a strange kind of glow, a weirdness magnet that drew stuff to me the way no one else could.

“How does it feel to that weirdness magnet?  Isn’t it like completely fucked up?” Stoners asked, not really expecting an answer.           

“Hang around and find out.”

Oh, they hung around all right. All the time.  Though the fuckers never offered me a stick of anything worthwhile.  Not once. But they tipped well, which was something.  I guess it was a kind of sympathy thing. Sort of like the most beautiful girl in your high school class fucking an awkward, harmless, loner kid, who couldn’t buy a date, out of the goodness of her heart; a mercy fuck.  There are limits to kindness, whereas evil is boundless. 

Or, so it seemed to me as I worked through the endless panels of a Bosch surreality that was my life in bars, that was working at my unchosen profession. Working, while keeping myself well lubricated, so that I would blend in with the rest of the demons, devils, and plagued semi-human forms, romping through a world of untold pestilence, pain and deprivation.  Living in this manner, was like giving a guided tour of Dante in your own head, sort of a “Fantastic Voyage” gone wrong, where the base pay was insultingly bad, but the tips were decent, and you got to see stuff no one else did outside of a locked-in ward, or a state prison for the criminally insane.  The more you drank though, the more that journey through the body became, a Voyage in the Dark and then, one day, without you knowing, instead of being the person giving the tour, you become one of the freaks.

I can’t say when I had become aware of what my life had become untenable.  And what was I doing about it?  Drinking.  Drinking as if my life depended upon it.  Drinking as if there were no tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

It was already tomorrow, and I was exhausted.  Every minute spent working in a bar, tensed and at a heightened state of awareness, is time spent multiplied by ten.  It would be difficult to say what is more tiring: the physical workout of hours spent relentlessly busting tail, without a break, working a full house of screaming banshees, or enduring ten hours of abject boredom, watching reruns of dreadful movies, cop dramas or classic sports reruns, carefully managing your alcohol intake so as not to become totally inebriated and non-functioning, before the eleven o’clock news.  Both a challenge to be sure.

The ice.  Melting.  In the sink wells and in the machines. Water dripping, taps leaking, the spray of the ice on the picture window and on the glaze of blacktop outside.  Ice in my mind.  Melting.

Tomorrow.

And how many miles to go before I sleep?

Now.  As I sit, think, maybe if I just close my eyes for a while.  Lie back in the plush booth far away from the prying eyes of the picture windows.  The eyes. 

Ice on the windows like fingernails on glass.  Fingernails tapping lightly on glass.  Trying to get inside.

And the distant sound of low voices.  A chatter of conversation in the dark.  And the sound of the jukebox cycling tunes.  Choosing most played, random numbers, leftover tunes on someone’s dollars from the night before. Sometimes the jukebox plays itself for hours when no one can hear.  When no one is listening. Like now.

The voices more distinct.  Not arguing, not imparting news, not conveying messages from the world beyond.  The world beyond the glass. Or, the world inside.

As my senses sharpen, as the realization becomes clearer: discovering that I am locked inside the bar, after hours, presumably alone, the idea of voices, any voicing, becomes a frightening one.  Who belongs to these voices?  Where do they come from?  How did they get inside?  In here?

Cautiously, I ease my way from the booth I had been resting in, careful not to upend the glasses on the table.  I can see no one reflected, sitting or standing, in the side mirrors along the walls opposite the bar. The mirrors are situated in such a way that all the space in the front room may be seen from the back without being observed.  That is depending upon where you are standing.

Where I am, there is a dark space by the front picture windows where the room juts out toward the street, and two eight top tables are arranged with their chairs resting legs facing up toward the fake tin ceiling.  Vinyl over wood, painted to look like tin and stained by a million cigarettes, to give that lived-in, authentic look.  Stained, as the wall is stained, by chicken wing sauce, dried ketchup, thousands of spilled beers, and left-overs from disgusting shots.  Atmosphere shaded by darkness; a black hole in the sight line.

And, I think, as I inch forward toward the bar, am I visible among the upturned chairs on tables in the back room?  Visible to those people by the bar.  Of course, I am.  What can be observed from the back, can be observed from the front.  That’s the whole point of the mirrors, isn’t it?  That is, if anyone cares to observe. Have a need to look.

 By the jukebox glare, I pause, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and, prepare to face the unknown.  What I see, when my eyes reopen, is not shocking, no longer surprising. Still, I wonder how stools had been turned down without my hearing, or noticing. Or, how the all-the-way-down dimmed lights, have been brightened. Or, how these people at the bar seemed not only not surprised to see me, but kind of glad.  At least, that’s how I interpret the warmth in their eyes, the mostly, hidden mirth; anticipation, somehow, realized by my being here, behind the bar, as I was meant to be, was the last piece missing from the puzzle.

I am wondering not so much about their being here, they seem to have always been here, are as regular, and as natural as the furniture they sit on, but how they had been served.

The small bald guy in the corner bar seat, bending his sipper straw in folds, answers the unstated question for them all, “The day guy is in the shitter.  Once he gets in there forget it.  Could be hours.  Days.  Weeks.  That boy’s insides are bad.  I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.  Not for a good while anyway. “

“You know, you guys really ought to put an outside, overhead, circulating fan in there.  Clear the air but good.  I can get you one through my contacts at the school.  Just say the word.”

“We served ourselves.  Not to worry, though, I’m keeping track.  We pay at the end.

We always do.  All of us.”

“So, what numbers do you want?”

I watched the old guy holding a pencil in one shaking hand, and, a pocket pad with numbers written on the top sheet, in the other.

“Numbers?”

“Daily numbers.  What’s wrong with you?  You just wake up or something?  When the day guy said a new man was coming on, I thought he meant one who could speak English.”

I looked closer at the old man.  He looked like some kind of unwell, test crash dummy, who had been in one hit too many walls for his own good.  There was something about his complexion, the sallow skin that sagged, where it should have been firm, the too obvious bones in his face and hands, the sunken pits of his eyes, the few remaining teeth that suggested unwell, not long for this world.

“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just an old crank.  I’ve been giving him money for numbers for twenty years and I haven’t won a dime.  I haven’t even seen a ticket from him.”

The dissenting voice came from another old man, one stool over.  He was wearing a baseball style adjustable cap that said GOLF NUT on it.

The first old man replied, testily.  “You have to play every day.  You want to see the tickets, fine, come over the house.  I have them all filed, by day, per year, all the way back as far as the daily numbers go.  You should have seen those guys at State Tax when they tried to call me on the gambling thing the year, we hit for twenty-one grand.  Handed him twelve boxes of losing tickets, indexed by month, and day, and told him to go to town, if he didn’t believe me. They owed me money.”

“Good, then you can buy me a beer.” Golf Nut said.

“You see what the hat says.  Don’t believe it. He’s just plan Nut for short.  Because he can’t play golf worth shit, and, he’s only got one ball.”

“I’d like to see you play golf.  You probably never set foot on a golf course in your life.”  

“You’re right.  I never have.  Stupidest fucking game ever invented.  One thing you have to remember if you’re going to work here is, Mr. Nut will do anything to get a free beer.”

“Even talk to you. That’s about as desperate and as low as a person could go.  I should go over to Hall and drink for half of what it costs here.”

“Except they wouldn’t let you in.  You can’t go anywhere else, and that’s all there is to it.  So, get used to it, and quit whining.  Give the pain-in-the-ass a beer.  I hate to listen to a grown man whine.”

I reach into the cooler for a frosty Molson’s Golden and pop the twist off.  I don’t even think twice about what I am doing.  Somehow, I know this is why I am here.

“Don’t let that old fart fool you, “Golf Nut says, “his name is pain-in-the-ass.  Everyone who comes here knows that.”

“I see it says Senior Night happy hour.  I’m a senior, are you giving me the special senior discount?”

“That’s for college seniors only.  Graduation is coming up.  There’s a whole week of specials for the graduating seniors.”

“I never went to college.  But I graduated from high school.  Does that count?”

“Not really.  Now if you had a college ID that says you were a graduating senior, I could help you with happy hour prices.”

“I have an AARP card.  Says I’ve been a senior for fifteen years.”

“That’s how long it took him to graduate from high school too.” Pain-in-the-ass says.

“And fuck you very much too.  He should talk, he never got past the third grade.”

“Did to, and you know it.  We were in the same class.  Last one before the War.”

“And then you got drafted.”

“So did you.”

“The hell, I did.  I enlisted.”

“So, did I.  Or did you forget? We were in the same unit.”

“He’s so full of shit.  I was in the Marines, and he was in the Army.  Same unit, my ass.   If you don’t feel like calling him pain-in-the-ass, shit-for-brains will do.  He’ll answer to either one.  Most people call me Boomer.  Or Mister Lynch.”

Shaking his hand, I ask, “Which do you prefer?”

“Tommy.”

I don’t know what to think as old Baldy chimes in,” Don’t let him kid you, son.  He’s actually older than I am.”

“Older than him, right.  What, by three weeks?” 

“Almost four.  My name is Willy.” Baldy says, holding his shaking hand out to me.

“Yeah, Willy.  Like Dick. Limp Dick.  Why don’t you and your pain in the ass go get laid?”

“I can’t.  Not since they started me on that new treatment program, I can’t get it up anymore.”

“Didn’t you ever hear about Viagra?”

“Heard about it.  But they don’t advise it for someone with my condition.”

“I’ll bet all the old ladies over at the Anne Lee Home were glad to hear that.”        

“They were. So was your wife.  You should really stay home more and take care of business.  A woman gets lonely.”

“What do you mean by a ‘woman gets lonely’?”

“For male companionship.  You know, a little kindness, lovey dovey stuff.  Intimacy they call it now.”

“She’s 76 years old.”

“Never too late to start.”

“Let me ask you this, were you drinking before you came out today?  I want to know because you sure are acting drunk.”

“Of course, I was.  I can’t eat anymore. Can’t screw around.  Can’t do much of anything I used to be able to do, so I might as well drink.”

“Might as well.  That’s what you’re good at.”

“Damn straight.  So, what’s your numbers.  I’ll bet you thought I forgot.”

I looked at Baldy. Now that I knew something about him, could see the gleam in his eyes, and the wretched attempt at a smile through all the pain he must have been feeling. I saw a sort of elf in decline, a man trying to salvage a few laughs at the end of the road he was on. 

“I had thought you might have forgotten.”

“Don’t think that.  I never forget.”

“He’s like an elephant that way.  If you get down wind of him, you’ll notice another way he’s like an elephant.  You should really bathe once in a while, Willy.”

“Fuck you, Lynch.  And the golf cart you rode into town on. Did you got to mass today?”

“Of course, I went to mass.  I go to mass every day.”

“Did you confess?”

“Maybe. What’s it to you?”

“Nothing. I hate to think of you as not having gone to confession.  Your mortal soul is in danger.  Drinking and swearing and carrying on the way that you do.”

“And you’re a saint, I suppose?”

“Saint Willy of the Divine. Has a kind of ring to it.”

“Yeah, like Peter Piper Pecker Eater.”

“Was that a joke, Mr. Lynch?  If it was that was pretty clever.  Almost like a riddle.  Can you say that fast five times?  While he’s busy screwing that up, why don’t you give me a couple of numbers.  Buck each.  If you win, I’ll bring in the ticket tomorrow. Otherwise, I keep the losers.”

“For the box.”

“Yep, that’s how it works.”

And so it goes.

On and on and on


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.


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