Another Night at the Bar
My date had just kicked me out because I got drunk on her homemade wine. I was screwed up. I took the long way down Phillips Avenue, in a light rain, huffing and puffing, and smacking into unkempt bushes. I passed all the darkened homes on the block, full of good, right-living American families. I was going to the bar. I needed to talk, and something in my soused mind told me the Squirrel Cage would be a good place to go for a nightcap, and a few words with a random friend. Karl would be there. He’d be hovering over the jukebox, like always, plugging quarters into the machine for old Leadbelly songs. Karl would be drinking his beer by the pitcher, and I would come stumbling in with my story about how Judy tossed me. I really needed to yell at him anyway. I needed to send a little blame Karl's way for the night I'd had. Perhaps I should've just gone home and forgotten everything with a good night's sleep. But that wasn't what I did. I was no good at calling quits. So I trudged froth in my goal for that last climatic drink.
He was at the end of Murray Avenue when I first saw him. He was wobbling alone in the glimmer of lights from the massive conglomerate bookstore. He looked out of place, an intoxicated moron with a ballcap on backwards. The kid looked like the victim of a fraternity prank, a dumb pledge left to fend for himself and find his way back to the university. We exchanged weak smiles as I passed, one drunk recognizing another for the cheap fools we really were. Christ, if only it had been that simple.
"Hey man, you got any change?" he said, his voice trailing behind me.
"None," I said, over my back. It was a lie, but not a big one.
"Come on," the kid continued. He caught up to me when I rounded the bend onto Forbes Avenue. He was right in pace with me, walking sideways, almost pleading. I felt bad. "Just a buck. You understand, right, bro? Chicks and shit will make you broke."
"I understand. It’s better to jerk it off, pal." I smiled weakly, again. The Cage was only a door or so down. I focused on the illuminated hues coming from the neon signs lighting the wet pavement, like a rainbow. I wanted the kid to go away, to go back home to his frat brothers.
"Fuck you then, you bitch!" he shouted, stopping in his tracks.
"Flattery won't get you anywhere," I shouted. But then I picked up the pace. I was glad the kid had quit moving. I knew he was too drunk to wait me out, by the time I'd leave the bar. My moment of eeriness was over. The gleaming bar was almost in my tainted hands. The night could resume undeterred at its misanthropic speed.
But then the kid attacked me. He ran up from behind and clasped my elbows in his hands. He pushed me up against the last beige brick of the travel agency, next to the bar. We were just out of sight of any windows. There was no one to save me but myself.
"All I wanted was a dollar, man," he spat. Then he laughed.
"I don't have a dollar," I said, panting, unsure what to do. The kid kept brushing my face against the wall. The texture of the brick hurt me a little, just a little.
"What you gonna do now?" he said. He laughed again, a sniveling college boy chuckle. This kid was the kind who had to medicate a woman if he wanted to sleep with her.
"I'm not gonna do shit, except have another beer when this is all over," I said. And then I laughed. We both laughed. We looked like two idiots in the rain, roughhousing outside the bar. To the passerby we probably looked like best pals, like manhandling chums.
"Can I have that dollar now?" the kid asked. His grip lessened on me. It was just enough for me to maneuver my arms and elbow him in the chest. The kid groaned. He loosened his grip some more. Then I turned. I pushed us both back into the wall. The kid smacked into the wall first. He fell to the pavement. I wanted to kick the son-of-a-bitch, but he didn't look that hurt. He looked stunned. So I took off and ran inside the Squirrel Cage.
They were all in there, taking up two large wooden tables at the front of the bar. Karl was there. So was my other pal, Gene Oldham. They were with this girl I knew only as, Gennifer with a G, and a host of other artists and musicians, the bulk of whom barely said more than a few words to me. I didn't go over to them right away. I was too shaken. Instead I staggered over to the bar and sat myself on a stool. I ordered a whisky. I shot it down with a beer chaser. Then I talked to Noel, the bartender, about some books. He poured me another shot. It was all I could do to listen. I kept looking back through the Cage's window, expecting that fucking kid to be waiting on the other side, with a meaty fist clinched, and a look of retribution on his smug face. I lit a nervous cigarette and tried to calm myself.
"What's the matter, Bill?" Noel asked. He set down a third shot. I took it down in one gulp, holding him off from getting me another.
"Bad night," I answered. I rubbed the raw spot on my cheek where my face had run against the building. "Women and alcohol and fistfights."
"I understand," Noel said.
"Hey Bill!" Karl called from the table. He had all of his greasy hair combed back. Karl looked like a real low-class wiseguy. “How'd your night go?"
I took a quick look outside the window. “She threw me out because I got drunk. Hey, Karl, did you see any suspicious looking characters around tonight?"
"There are always suspicious looking characters around.”
"Not that kind. I mean the clean cut kind, the sort of character that should be off trying to inebriate sorority girls, or running for president."
"Some prick just tried to jump me outside."
"No kidding," Gene said, butting in. He acted like this sort of shit happened every day. "Did you do anything to, uh, provoke him?"
"Yeah," I answered. I took a sip of the beer I brought over. "I wouldn't give the guy a buck."
"Sometimes that’s all it takes," Gennifer with a G said.
I sat there for a while and didn't say anything. I just drank my beer in silence and kept a close watch on the door. It was as if I'd never even joined the table. Everyone went back to their superficial conversations about bands and fraudulent art techniques. They only talked to show one another up. I hated artists. So I drank my beer and watched the television at the far end of the bar. It was playing a rerun of a goddamned award show. The same damn actors and models were on the screen. Their whole dishonest act sickened me, and I spat on the floor in a rage. I wanted to leave and go for a walk around Squirrel Hill just to clear my head. But I couldn't. I was afraid that kid was outside waiting. It upset me so much what a horrendous chicken I'd become.
Just then the door to the Cage opened with a thud. In walked the kid from outside. He had a grin of vengeance on his face. I nearly shit myself right at the table. It got worse. Behind him sauntered two of his fraternity pals. They were a couple of thick-necked, bullet-headed, WASPy types with university t-shirts, and their ballcaps pulled down low over their eyes. The three of them singled me out from within the midst of my crowded table. I wanted to leave, but I was too frozen to move. Instead I put on my tough guy veneer. They pointed at me a second time, and I pointed right back. I hated acting tough.
You know them?" Gennifer with a G asked, watching the frat boys as they bound on over.
"Old friends," I answered.
My assailant from outside bent down so that our greasy noses almost touched. Our reddened eyes peered into one another. He was smirking at me, clearly pleased with himself that he'd found his prey. His buddies laughed. I looked up at them.
"You know I was just kidding outside, right?" the kid said. He grabbed a hold of my head and turned it back toward him. "I was just messing around, until you had to go and play tough guy. Are you still a tough guy?" he asked.
"I'm a lover, not a fighter." I responded. No one around me laughed. They left me virtually alone with the three stooges.
"You couldn't get laid if you tried," the kid said.
"You're probably right," I answered. "It’s a good thing I drink."
The kid laughed at me then he took a quick glance at all of the effeminate men, huddled with their bottles of expensive import beer. He looked at all of the pretty women intertwined with us. "I'll bet you like boys, anyway," he said, before rising to his feet.
I took a nervous sip on my beer and lit a smoke. The three bullies continued to meander around our table. They said nothing. They just acted the roles of rich college boys. I felt bad for inflicting the creeps on everyone. I'd never felt so much tension. I wanted to rise and deck the kid just to break the cloud of high anxiety looming overhead. But I didn't have to. One of the kid's friends decided to take things into his own hands. He slapped one of the artist boys in the face, this big fellow named, Rick O'Sullivan, who was a regular Jack Kerouac. Rick was an aging jock playing the role of tragic unknown author. I actually got along pretty well with him.
Rick got up and pushed the college boy right across the bar. He fell flat against the table of a booth. The kid's other friend tried to intervene, but another of the artist boys tripped him, and he did a header right into a vacant stool. Both characters were stunned. And then it was the kid's turn. He tried to punch Rick, but Rick moved out of the way. His fist connected with one of Gennifer's friend's shoulders. The girl squealed and quickly slapped the kid several times, until Rick picked him up and tossed him right into his friend. It was like a goddamned movie! The fight was like a regular old action film starring one of those pretty actors from television. I wanted to get another beer, to take in the action, but Noel was on the phone, probably with the cops. Besides I was too much of a target to become mobile. So I had a sip of Karl's drink.
"Alright!" Noel shouted. He slammed down the phone and everyone stopped. "I just called the cops and they're on the way! You all have about a minute to get the hell out of here!"
The kid and his pals got to their feet quickly. They tore out the front door, smacking into one another like cartoons, before breaking off into the blackness of the night. Rick straightened himself and smiled at Noel. He sat back down as if nothing happened.
"That means you guys, too!" Noel said. "I don't put up with that fighting shit. You all can keep drinking if you want, but you're not doing it in here."
Everyone looked stunned, angry, as if their shit didn't stink, and Noel's infraction was a personal affront. They were all no different in their pomposity from the kid and his frat brothers. These artists were just a different kind of bird. Instead of using violence and wealth, the art kids used intellect and culture to invoke their hierarchy over everyone else. They did it to Noel on a daily basis, which was why he probably felt so free in tossing them all out. I couldn't blame him. I just felt bad that I'd become lumped in with such an undesirable group. Who wants to become a hassle to their favorite bar? We all got up and left without protest.
Outside the night was thick with humidity. Thankfully the kid and his frat pals were nowhere to be found. Neither were the cops. Noel probably never even called them. He probably used the threat of those fascists just to get us all to leave. He was a smart man, that Noel. Too bad he talked my ear off all of the time.
"What do we do now?" Karl asked. He was holding his pint glass, a stolen artifact from the outrageous night.
"Find another bar?" I offered.
We both laughed. Gene and Gennifer, and the rest of the art crowd dispersed without a word. Then Karl and I were alone in the quiet of the city street. In truth, I was tired, and probably could've used the comfort of my rickety bed. But as I said, I was a glutton for this type of punishment. I never learned one valuable lesson. I simply kept moving on and probably would, until one day the world just took its toll on me. Plus I needed another drink.
"I'm feeling kind of happy now," I said.
"I guess that's good," Karl answered. He finished his beer and rolled the empty pint glass down the sidewalk, until it landed in the street. Within a minute a bus rode by and smashed it. Of course we laughed. The two of us were too dumb to realize how much time we'd wasted in our young lives. We were too blind to see how much time others had wasted on us.
"We should go to that bar," I said.
"Which one?" Karl asked.
"The one we were at last night. The one where I met my date. There were a lot of pretty women there, and I'm feeling suddenly alone."
"Sounds good," Karl said. “They have cheap drafts.”
And the two of us wandered down Forbes Avenue like we'd probably do again the next night.