Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Back Tracking
from Avenue Magazine June 2005

You’re standing in a bar somewhere feeling worn. It discourages you because it’s early for you to be in a bar and be tired. That’s not bravado –just the current truth. Eleven o’clock maybe. Its night but doesn’t feel dark enough yet. Dark is after midnight for you. After midnight is the signal of a new day and it’s always dark. You just feel it’s not late enough. Then again, what’s late when bars close at two and some hassle you at a quarter till about your drinking.
You make the rounds. You talk to people. You make yourself. Tonight you aren’t in the mood for exchanging pleasantries. Maybe it’s because they only serve domestic beer. There’s no will to drink liquor tonight. You heart isn’t in it, it’s somewhere else and beer will do if they only had what you liked. Only if there was someone to talk to in this place. You move past the jukebox where some kid is struggling to play G. Love and Special Sauce but can’t get the machine cooperate. If only they’d keep it simple. You move past the plastic figures and pretty wax statue prisoners.
At the back of the bar someone looks familiar. You see John C. McGinley from all those Oliver Stone movies but known more for Office Space where his character celebrated Michael Bolton’s entire catalog. What the hell is he doing in a bar here, you think. You hear the chatter climb around you and some people are staring. They see too. They’re snapping their fingers and saying “It’s…It’s…He’s…”
You walk by three struggling guys and quickly say “Office Space” and they say “Yeah, that’s it” and with a surprise they say “Thanks.” You walk away to get another beer. The crowd has begun to thicken and people nestle into booths. A girl smiles at you and you tip the bottle because saying hello just isn’t forthcoming. You buy the beer and you know the girl selling it. She asks if it’s cold enough. You say sure because you know you won’t finish it. It’s just something to do, a slow numb of the senses. She says come back and you say okay as you take a swig. It’s cold. Real cold. You turn back and tell her.
Rejoining the group you came with its then you decide to go home. Really, they ask. It’s after midnight now and it’ll be hard to get a cab if you continue to wait. There’s nothing here for you. John C. McGinley’s gone so you couldn’t talk to him about making Wall Street or Talk Radio. There’s only one you like in the entire crowd and she’s a bartender and you’re another chap in here drinking. Like a doctor and a patient, and mingling too close to the clients is a bad choice.
You tell your friend you’re gone. You say you’re gonna get some pizza and call a cab. He asks if you’re sure and you say yes, walking away. You leaving the bar means someone else gets to go inside, proper head count and all. You say goodnight to the girl slinging cold beers. The doorman tells you to have a good night in-between dealing with meaty guys in small shirts burned by the false light of tanning bulbs. Get out in the sun and work you think.
The police already out in force preparing for 2 a.m., their dark uniforms stand out firm on the sidewalk, the night feeling trapped in a subtle haze of martial law. Walking under fluorescent bulbs you feel completely alone, void of wheels and the generic thin buzz of cheap American beer. What city am I in? You wonder where the insects are that usually crowd the light bulbs. On vacation until its sweaty hot. Then, the insects choose between fluorescent drug and the sweat on your skin. But not the girls, they never sweat when they go out. Their tanned skin glows at night, glimmering like fresh glazed porcelain in the low light of night life. The insects get confused by the glow and the guys have to suffice.
Pizza. Late night antidote to the crawl in your stomach and the aftertaste of drinking. You know the guy serving slices, its ______. He’s a surfer from your creative non-fiction class. You remember the guy loves to surf. Lives for it. Has a good heart. You talk awhile, you order, you say you need a cab. He hands you a phone list of cabs and a Styrofoam cup of soda and it tastes alive. You call a taxi, they tell you fifteen minutes and you think you’ve made a mistake and ordered Chinese take-out. ______ hands you two pepperoni slices, says enjoy. You stand and eat because there are three people sitting nearby talking but not eating and you just don’t want to be near the conversation. You want peace and quiet.
Your cell phone rings, vibrates in your pocket. It’s the cab company. Way early. Night is still early. Through the glass of the pizza joint you see the cab-van-taxi. You think this is good, a smooth ride home. The taxi-van pulls away. Great. You say goodbye to _____, grab your food and drink and dart out the damn door. The van-taxi is down the sidewalk at the bar you just left. Backtracking. A swarm of people surround the van-taxi and you walk up and stand dead center. The crowd is like a mini riot, several couples and two guys.
They’re fussing about everything and nothing and about where to go. You hear one of the guys yell “Strip Club, damn it!” He’s a Wild Card. The cab driver stops looking from person to person and at you because you’re standing there with food in hand shaking your cell phone in the other.
The cabbie asks if you are ### - ####. You say yes and she asks your address and says pile in. You take the rear driver back seat thinking that’s farthest from the melee about to enter this van-taxi. People pile in and you feel for the transmission and rear axle of this thing.
Everyone piles in and you get Wild Card sitting next to you. He delivers an overabundance of profanity and yelling. Two couples sit in front of you and to the left of Wild Card another girl sits. In the front by the cab driver sits the other guy. Wild Card gets too close sometimes because he’s drunk and you go to a calm place because all you want to do is get the hell home for some peace and quiet. Everyone’s yelling about where to go and Wild Card yells “Strip Club!” again and asks “who wants to do an eight ball?” It’s tight in the van and it gets hot quick. You’re all packed in there like a prison transfer van en route to the county jail.
One of the girls calmly asks the driver to turn on the air. Wild Card says “Yeah, it’s hot. Turn on the @$#*@-ing air.” Someone asks about changing the music. You guess its modern country. You sit calmly in your place trying to be civil with all the noise. You slowly eat pizza and drink your dark soda. The girls seem agitated about being out tonight. The one with the cool hat says she can smell pizza. The other girl says she wants some. I bet.
Wild Card says out loud he’s nervous because you’re being too quiet. He’s paranoid because you’re keeping to yourself. A girl complains again. Wild Card complains about the smell of your pizza. You eyeball him. You eat slower. There’s only so much room to square with this maggot but you plan on it just the same.
The van stops because a girl wants out. The door slides back as Wild Card yells something at her but she walks away giving the finger never revealing her face. You wonder what she looks like and know you’ll never know. “Strip Club,” the Wild Card yells.
The guy sitting next to the driver has been proclaiming, bragging, the whole ride that he just got out of jail today and that he’s got $3000 in his pocket but revises that statement to $12,000. And he’s going to spend it tonight. Twelve grand? In his pocket? Got to be hard to walk around comfortably. Twelve grand is a good down payment on a house or a low end new car. And this guy is going to blow it at the Strip Club. Somebody at the Strip Club may end up with a new car next week.
Wild Card sitting next to you keeps saying Mister Twelve Grand is his man and that if anybody $#@% with his money man they’ll have to deal with him. That he’ll kill anyone who messes with him. Good friend, you think. For how long, you think. Until the $12,000 is gone? You sit there quiet, remaining Zen, staying in that eating-your-pizza-trance like state. Trying to stay invisible.
Wild Card is agitated. He complains again about the air and how bad he is and how much he’s going to do tonight and how everyone else can go to hell.. This guy must be amazing to work with. Absurd. Like that clueless family in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard To Find, the one with the Misfit who kills everyone.. You secretly wish for the Misfit to show up and off these bastards. You bet the driver does too. How she can be so calm through all of this is an exercise in long term self control. I am amazed at her ability, her numbness. Is she that jaded or that tired?
The van arrives at the Strip Club and everyone gets out but Wild Card and Mister Twelve Grand. They’ll meet everybody inside. They have the driver pull away from Strip Club so they can snort some heroin. She parks the van and Mister Twelve Grand looks back at you, asks “Are you a cop?” You stare hard at the guy, then smile. You say the last thing you are is a cop. He says you better not be and you say “Just do your thing so I can go home.” Wild Card says, “C’mon man, let’s just do it.”
Wild Card leans in close and they open a gum sized wrapper of heroin, too drunk to snort. They fumble and one spills it on the van center console and some on the floor. Wild Card leans down on the floor to snort what he can, the other guy tries to get it off the dirty console. Sad, you think. You have to snort dirty van carpet. The driver looks on, a bored observer, and scolds them into hurrying up. You watch and look away, waiting for it all to end.
You’re in the center of the back seat staring at this ridiculous scene. To your outside right you see a silver detective’s car moving nearby. The cab driver sees this and tells them to hurry it up. Mister Twelve Grand starts to go limp and Wild Card helps him out of the van like a war time stretcher bearer. Mister Twelve Grand asks the driver to take him home now instead and how much will it cost.
She says she’s got to take you home and he says to forget you and to please take him home. You say this is b.s. and for Wild Card to close the damn door. Wild Card pulls his buddy away and they limp towards the strip club. The driver makes a minor complaint and takes you home. You both say nothing the on the way home. You wonder how many times a night she has to deal with nonsense like this. You wonder how long it will take you to get to sleep tonight.
Before you can answer yourself she’s brought you home and the trip home costs you sixteen dollars. You wonder how much it would have cost to have an enjoyable cab ride home.
You go inside and drink some water and get comfortable in bed. It’s taken nearly an hour to get home after initially leaving your friends.
Your cell phone vibrates on the night stand. It’s your roommate calling you for a ride home. He got left because they all got drunk and separated. He says he’ll be standing outside the pizza place waiting for you.
You’re backtracking again. Listening to UNKLE during the drive back and realize you’re backtracking again.

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