Say what you will about drunks," she said out loud to the dark around her, "but no one will love you like they can." Rebecca Barry, Later, at the Bar
“You can’t sleep here.”
“Who says so?”
“I do, Asswipe, watch your step.”
I wondered who he was, telling me I couldn’t sleep where I wanted to. A more pertinent question would have been, “Where am I?”
I raised my head and opened my eyes. The place I was in did not look familiar. Besides, it was dark, and smoky, and there were all these strange noises that were unaccountable at first sight. I had the strange sense that the voice that addressed me was not the only foreign body in the room.
And I would be right.
Gradually, the place I was in, clarified. Behind the bar, dusty shelves of bottles, with their thin, metal speed pourers, and the ones with bulbous plastic tops, obscenely discolored by liquids trapped inside; graveyards for fruit flies and pickled eggs. The pickled eggs of my eyes looking back in this dream of jaundice, and of delirium tremens, of hallucinatory visions both auditory and visual. I felt as if I had moved beyond that place to some place even more threatening, some place where the scratched, broken back bar mirrors surfaces, had oxidized completely, had flaked off, and what I could see in the surface where the glass should have been, was an interior of my exterior body; the unshaven, filthy face, my discolored eyes in a bleak solution of chemicals, and acid washes, unable to be still.
“Something bothering you, Partner?” A voice nearby was saying.
“Pardon me?” I was thinking.
“There are no pardons here. Thought we lost you for a moment.”
“Maybe you did. Where are we?”
“After hours? Where’s that?”
“In the bar, After Hours. That’s what it’s called. Tells you all that you need to know. Opens when all the other bars close. And stays open as long as necessary. As long as it takes.”
“As long as it takes to what?”
“As long as it takes to fulfill the needs of the people who come in.”
“Then it must never close.”
“That about sums it up, Partner.”
I tried to focus on the speaker’s face. Besides the unhealthy light, my focusing problems, and, the man’s unlikely apparel, I could barely see his form, much less make out any specifics, despite his being seated only a few feet away.
“What’s with the dark sweatshirt hood?” I was asking.
“Cold in here. There’s been no heat in here since the last Ice Age. Aren’t you cold?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“You will be.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I reached out to the bar and grabbed the green bottle next to the snifter placed in front of what must have been my space at the bar. The snifter was half-full, the beer had retained a light chill. It wasn’t a brand I favored but when in Rome…. I thought, seeing that my neighbor had the same combination in front of him on the wood.
The beer tasted like skunk piss and was notorious for the hangovers it helped induce. Whatever was in the snifter was an unknown at this point, but, more than likely, it was something lethal. The only sure way to dodge a hangover of epic proportions, one sure to follow a binge of unknown duration, was to keep on drinking. A wise man had said that. That was the myth, anyway. Like most drinking myths it was apocryphal. But that didn’t stop me from taking a healthy hit on the brown liquid inside the snifter.
After I swallowed, I released a protracted sigh, “Jesus that was good. Who would have thought a place like this could have such excellent cognac?”
“This place is full of surprises, that’s why I suggested coming here.”
“Wise idea my friend,” I said, toasting my neighbor, touching my glass to his, thinking that what he said did not indicate that he had suggested coming here with me, or that I had known him beyond this brief acquaintance.
“Yeah, this place has everything: atmosphere, conviviality and alcohol…”
“Conviviality. That’s quite a word. Where’d that come from?”
“If you’re good, I could spell it for you. Maybe even use it in a compound sentence.”
“Well, aren’t you the smart one? A man of hidden depths. What did you do before you came here?”
“Same as everyone else: got by, made a living.”
“Some people’s ideas of ‘getting by’ and ‘making a living’ are more complicated than others.”
“Ain’t that the truth. You know, one thing this place does lack is women.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Remember the women.”
“Haven’t seen any. Not that I can recall anyway. Where are these so-called women?”
“They went to freshen up.”
“Where? In Mesopotamia? They’ve been gone a long time if you ask me.”
“It just seems like forever.”
I took another healthy hit of my beer to wash away the lingering taste of the cognac. That, and all this aimless talking, could make a man thirsty. Thirsty beyond belief. I looked behind the bar for the man who was supposed to be tending.
“Where’s Smilin’ Jack?”
“The bartender. I assume he’s the guy that called me an Asswipe. What’s his deal, anyway?”
“He’s just pissed off that he’s working. The guy that was supposed to relieve him never showed up. When push comes to shove, he’ll be around when you need him.”
“A real joystick, huh?”
“Something like that.”
I was relieved to hear that we wouldn’t go thirsty. There was nothing worse than to being stuck in an arid desert, surrounded by potables you were unable to consume; a Samuel Taylor
Coleridge water-water-everywhere-nightmare voyage that never ends.
I wondered what I was using for money to keep the Good Ship Double Pop afloat. I hadn’t been flush in years. You didn’t need to see an IN GOD WE TRUST ALL OTHERS PAY CASH sign in front of you to know that your credit was no good here.
I heard some scuffling noises behind in the dark of the room. It sounded like sumo wrestlers locked in some sort of mortal combat, grunting, and thrashing about without thought or concern for what lay nearby.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The floor show.”
“I hope there’s no extra charge. I might be running a little short.”
“Don’t worry about it, everyone here is running a little short. Some might even say that’s the whole point of places like this.”
By the sound of what he was saying, I didn’t really want to go there. I turned away from where the noise was and took another sip from my drink.
“Ah, the pause that refreshes.” I said.
“You sound like a beer commercial.”
“Some of my best thoughts have come during beer commercials.”
We both laughed.
Then I heard it loud and distinct and clear, my favorite Rolling Stone song, “Tumbling Dice”. I began singing along in a low voice, becoming more and more animated as the song went on.
“You okay, Man?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re acting like you’ve got some kind of herky-jerky disease. A loud herky-jerky disease.”
“I’m just singing along. Singing along to my favorite song.”
“Man, I don’t hear nothin’. Nothin’ but the taps leaking, the ice meltin’, and the wheezing of the old geezer’s gasping for one last deep breath with cigarette smoke in it. In case you hadn’t noticed, even the TV’s ain’t got no sound.”
I looked at where the twin black and white TVs sat on their perches behind the bar, showing snow and flipping lines, where the picture should be, and the eyes of the old men watching just the same. Still, I could hear Mick singing plain as day, “Don’t you see the time flashin’ by Honey, got no money I’m all sixes and sevens and nines….”
“That’s one white boy doesn’t have to worry none about his job.”
“The way you sing, his job will be safe for as long as he wants it.”
I had to laugh at that. I was no Mick Jagger, nor was meant to be.
“Where are those women anyway?”
“The ones you spoke of before.”
“Wasn’t me, Bro, must have been someone else.”
“I thought it was you.”
“Not me, Son, I just got here. But you, you’ve been here God know how long. When I came in you were out, sitting up with your eyes wide open. At least, that’s how it looked to me.
“What happened to the guy that was sitting here before you?”
“Beats me. People move on you know.”
“Yes, they do.”
“If you’re waitin’ on some women, I’ll help you wait.”
“Be my guest.”
“Mighty kindly of you, Son. What you drinking, Boss?”
“Sounds good to me. Let me buy us one. Hey, Jack, two more of the same and take it here.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“That’s, Okay, no big deal. About them women….”
“They’ve been gone a real long time.”
“You know women. That’s their way, Man. Always fixin’ themselves up. Making themselves look good. Truth is most of the time a man don’t care what she looks like after a while. All he care about is a warm body and a place to lie down.”
“Amen. I’ll drink to that.”
And we did, touching glasses, as if we were two men who had known each other a thousand years. Before long, we’d be going over good times we never had, with all the people neither one of us knew, and all the good times we imagined we had together, with and without them. I looked forward to that and, I’m sure he did too. We’d been through a lot together, whether we knew it or not, and there was a lot more to come.
“What do you do when you’re not here?” My companion asked.
“Me neither. It’s hard work. Harder than most people imagine.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Where you headed after here?”
“Don’t know. Maybe nowhere. How about you?”
“Here’s as good a place as any.”
“You could say that.”
“I just did.”
We both laughed, on cue, as if this were a long-standing joke between us. Our hands reached for our cognac simultaneously, and we drank deeply before reaching for the long neck bottles of beer on the bar.
After a long silence, he asked, “You don’t suppose those women skipped out on us, do you?”
“It’s possible. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Well, if they don’t come back pretty soon, I’m a gonna drink her drink. Hate to see good booze go bad”
I looked to see what he meant by the women’s drink. Saw two cocktails melting down where they sat on cork coasters, their swizzle sticks sitting at an angle, bent butts of half-smoked, lipstick-stained cigarettes, sitting in glass ashtrays nearby.
“They were lookers, weren’t they?” I said.
“Sure were. Two finer women, I ain’t never seen.”
We both drank and sat silently for a while. Both of us feeling the great weight of absence pressing down on our shoulders.
“Sure, wish they’d hurry, I’ve got a powerful urge.”
We both drank at the same time, as before but, without the same energy and anticipation. Neither of us looked forward to what would happen if they didn’t come back. After hours just got longer and longer and longer with no one to help you fill them.
“Where do you think they’ve gotten themselves too?” I asked.
“Who?” My companion replied.
“The ones we’ve been waiting for.”
“I’m not waiting for anything, Slick. I’m just here to drink.”
I thought about that suggestion. It was as good as any I’d heard in some time. I wondered where my friend, the black guy, had gone, when he had left, and who this guy was in his place. I wondered how long he had been sitting where he was and, why I hadn’t noticed his arrival or, the other’s departure. I thought about asking him some of these questions but, I didn’t bother. I thought I already knew the answers.
There were only one kind of answer in a place like this and, it wasn’t good.
“I wish they’d do something about those TV’s.” I said, as much to make conversation as anything else.
“Like fix them, tune them in, or, something. There must be something to watch.”
“Why? No one is watching, no one cares what’s on. All the TV does is inhibit conversation and interaction. Besides, all the people here are here to drink. End of story.”
“Some people are watching.”
“You can call that watching if you want. It isn’t. Not really.”
“What it is it, then?”
“Staring. There’s a difference you know.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there, but I got away.”
“How did you think you got away?”
“By drinking. The more you drink, the less energy there is for anything else.”
“Amen.” I said.
I thought about leaving but I couldn’t.
I was down one drink and it was his turn to buy.
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.