“I guess what I want is for— oh, fuck me!” The patrons at the bar all turn to see what’s happened. A waitress comes to clean the mess and says, “It’s OK’” and she bends to pick up the pieces. Again, she says it’s fine and she smiles. She sweeps up the nasty, little pieces. She turns to leave but looks back and says, “I’ll bring you a new one.” She smiles again. It’s her job to smile and be polite in exchange for a paycheck.
The Mission Bell is closing at 1AM. Last call for alcohol is signaled here with a antique looking bell hung in the middle of the shelf behind the bar. When someone rings the bell loudly it jolts the drunks awake and amuses the staff. “See that?”
“Huh?” Alex’s drab, olive eyes are focused on a distant target that rests just beyond the field of his scope.
“That tattoo’s on her lower back. It’s ugly.
“Yeah. Yeah, it was. She’s a good looking girl.”
She smiles her standard service sector smile toward her customer and returns with a fresh beer, “Here you go. Enjoy.” And she turns to look and smile at another patron who needs her services for the moment.
“I would never do that.” Terry lights up a GPC and looks towards the ceiling, releasing exhaust like a diesel truck.
“I think I saw a scar though. When she bended over her shirt lifted up in the back. A big scar. Running up her spine. Maybe she wanted to hide it with the tattoo. Like, she’s embarrassed.
“Didn’t see it. Anyways, black tattoos are cheap. “
“She’s not my type.”
“I saw a sweet girl with some spinal injury. You see some trashy slut.” Alex’s beer tips a bit towards Terry.
“I want another drink.”
“You’ve still got more than half of that one.
Terry’s GPC drops and squelches in the half-filled mug. “I’ll get another.
“Yeah, go ahead. I’ve already got un tabula grande.
“Where’s your wallet? I’m good for it. You know me. Señor! Cerveza aqui, por favor!
A word to a woman seated near him and the barkeep walks over and he pulls the handle on the Pabst. There’s live music in the hotel bar. Soft cover tunes on the weekends for fun, free drinks, maybe even tips with a microphone that smells like a beer. The music filters through the conversations being held in the bar. The piano man here is real, at least.
“It’s like we’re stuck in a Billy Joel song.”
“You working tonight?”
“Think I’m getting too old for physical labor. I don’t want to talk about it.” Terry’s voice has been tempered by a lifetime filled with cigarette smoke and burnt by disappointment. It’s often a bit surprising for people who expect a finer tone to emerge from such a slight frame. “What’s going on over here?”
At the end of the counter, the barkeep’s woman rests her head on an arm splayed across the countertop. Her fingers are pickling in the bar mat cocktail. Black hair spills onto the bar and down her back to her waist.
“Few too many high gravity drinks got her pinned to the bar?” Terry lights a new GPC, stoking it like a man working the bellows then flicks its burning ash with one thin finger.
“I think she’s tired. She’s been talking to him all night. Maybe they’re together. She’s waiting for him to get off. It’s like they’re in love,” says Alex.
“She’s drunk. And insecure. I thought I saw her looking at you earlier. Women who wear their hair long are insecure. Maybe you two’d get along, Allie.”
“I kinda like my story. She’s waiting for him but she’s tired so she’s just going to sleep at the bar. It’s sweet. Love— “
“That’s debatable. See that guy over there?” A man in a flannel shirt makes eye contact. He puckers his lips like he’s preparing to kiss grandma. He bares his teeth, mouth still pinched. Looking at Alex, he chirps like a little bird. “That guy over there. I think he loves you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think he’s the type who would make me breakfast.” Alex, drunk on forgotten Pabst, “Should we just get a room and sleep it off here.”
“Nah. I want to see what’s going on here. Trawl for some action while the night’s young.”
“Heh. Yeah, good idea. I’ve been thinking. Is love debated?”
A cop enters the bar’s batwing doors and scans the sparse crowd, takes a seat near the exit. Terry writes something quickly on a napkin. “You hold that thought, Allie love.” Terry walks up to the police officer, napkin in hand. Their business interaction is small and quick, insignificant. Terry returns and the cop waits for some service.
“What were you saying?”
“Nothing, I don’t remember.”
“What is love?”
“Baby. Don’t hurt me. I guess it’s a stupid question.
“Love… Nietzsche believed that women,” Terry pronounces the name of the philosopher like the name of the linebacker and gets beset by a cough mid-sentence, “That women are not capable of friendship. That love for a woman is creating happiness for a man.”
“I’d like that I guess. But, like, if I think I love someone, do I really? I want to… to be in love…
“Heh. I doubt it. Love is not a one way street.”
“How can I love some… some stranger?”
Terry lights a new cigarette with the older one and disposes of the butt in Alex’s close-to-empty mug.
“You got your eye on someone?”
“I do. At work… Well, maybe a few. I don’t know how to approach someone to tell them all that I want. What I need. Outside of a professional capacity, that is. What about you? You got your eye on anyone? From work?”
The bartender is polishing glasses at the end of the counter. His woman holds her heavy head up and speaks to him and they laugh and he cleans then she lays her head back down.
“No, none of my clients. I’m not really one to eat where I shit. Beer, please!” Terry pushes an empty brown bottle in the direction of the barkeep.
Barkeep sets down his clean glass. He says something to his woman who puts her head back down after he’s done speaking. Barkeep pulls the handle on the tap, letting the amber brew ease into its new home without upsetting its disposition.
“Yeah, beer me too, mister. You know, if I get a room we can just add all this to my bill when I check out.
“Nah.” It’s in between songs and the few customers still lingering in the dimly lit fog are less animate than ever. “This place still has some surprises. I bet I can ride with one of these guys if I want to.
“That’s a plan.” Alex attempts to shift the spotlight,” But what I was saying; I’ve been reading. Like smart stuff.” Barkeep brings the PBR to Alex then pulls another. He hands it to Terry who puts a hand around it, rubbing the beads of water from it before taking a drink.
“Like that old man in that book by Nabokov. He loved Annabel Lee, in the kingdom down by the sea. She died. When they were twelve. Then he said that’s why he was a pedophile. Granted, he said it pretty damn good. But that shit’s not real.
“Oh! Wow! I just read that book! What’s that called when that happens? Like you see something right after you learn about it.”
“Synchronicity. Why were you reading that?”
“It’s supposed to be a good book. I don’t know.”
“It is. It’s a five hundred page confession.”
“I didn’t notice. That’s why you’re so great. I’ve got to write that word down.” Alex grabs a bar napkin and a hotel pen, writing ‘SINCRONICITY.’ black, block letters. “No one would expect you to know about stuff like that. Russian novels and psychiatry.
Terry’s mouth flattens into a hyphen that points a cigarette at the reader. “Guess I must’ve picked up all that from the back of a placemat. Or a matchbook. Can’t remember.”
“I didn’t really know what to think about that book.” Alex crumples up his napkin and pushes it around the ashtray.
“The lies we tell ourselves to keep from going crazy. But you have to talk with someone for them to betray why you’re nutty as a shithouse rat.”
Still focused on burnt out tobacco, the embers burn the paper in small, orange waves that move in accordance with his fingers. Alex goes on without regard to what the person seated a foot away has said of the work of Vladimir Nabokov. “Sometimes feelings, they stay raw, never decomposing, but they become, like, trapped in amber and beautiful. More beautiful than if they’d died naturally. But you can polish that amber until it’s better than what it holds. Forgotten stupid mosquitoes, elevated to museum specimens. Is that real?”
“No.” Terry takes a gulp. “You know that a female mantis will sometimes eat the head of a male after mating?
“Yes. Yes, I knew that.” Weak little flame, the ember.
“Hey, that napkin. I need it.” Terry sees it on the bar next to the pen and takes them both, briefly leaving the bar a to speak with a man who walked in unnoticed while Allie was soliloquizing. “If you fucked this up, I will fucking gut you.” The ink and beer-stained, little piece of paper, concealed after a terse exchange and a prompt return, still has two bits of information written on it. “You feelin’ OK? Want to talk about something’s bothering you?”
“I just watched Love Story. And here I am, with you, in this bar with the goddamn piano man up on stage crooning to us. I’m feeling romantic I guess.”
Theresa finishes most of a beer in a swig, “Lonesome loser. Romance is for idiots.”
“….OK. Should we just sleep here. I don’t think we should be driving.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve been planning to grab a ride anyway.
“OK.” Alex looks around at the other people in the bar and the woman with the barkeep still has her head down but now he has his down too and her eyes are partly open. He is not asleep but is looking directly at her, eye to drunken closed eye, with his hand on her head. ”It’s like I can only love part of a person; I can love the part I create from what they give me.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Some goddamn storybook fantasyland?You sound naïve and romantic and drunk. Go to bed.”
“A little romance is good.”
“Heh. Relationships are always selfish. Money, sex, phony compliments. Getting stoned off brain chemicals.”
His woman is still at the bar but not very near anyone who is still stationed in the lucid territory of piano men and broken mugs. He pats her head once and the singer says that his night is almost over. The crowd has been great and should tip the waiters and tuck in their sweethearts tonight. Barkeep glides his hand across his woman’s cheek and she comes back to him and the land of the living for a moment but he still has closing duties so she’s free to drift away once more as he calls in tabs and counts the till and polishes a few more glasses. Someone rings the Mission Bell. No one much reacts.
“Like, I think it’s all selfish. Personally, I’m like a wildlife photographer. I get close, record the subject, the moment. Freeze it. And leave. It’s not objective. I can’t steal a man’s shoes and see how they feel. I keep my distance. Use the utility principle. Cost benefit analysis.”
“Seems as if you just admitted that the problem is with you.”
“Take only pictures. Leave only footsteps.”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry…not eloquent.” Alex downs half his beer.
“Well, there’s another one: leave it better than you found it. It doesn’t work well for you though.”
“No. It doesn’t.” He taps his empty bottle on the bar and watches the backwash jumps. Keeping his eyes on the bottom of the bottle he asks, “Do you think I’ll leave you better than I found you?
“No. I don’t. But what we have isn’t so bad. If we both know what it is.
“What is it?
Terry briefly pauses, answering, “Friendship,” after measuring the requisite tactfulness.
“Is that real?”
“As real as anything in this bar, you lush. But I can’t vouch for the things in your head.”
Alex sits, fingering the aluminum lip of his beer can, staring into its empty mouth. “Let’s go. We can sit for a while. Watch TV.
“Nope.” Terry drops a cigarette butt into her half-full pilsner and it protests its small death with a quiet hiss.
“We can sleep, maybe. Order breakfast in the morning. I want to hold you. Hold something— real.”
“Good-night, everybody’s been great.” says the Mission Bell’s own Billy Joel.
Barkeep rustle’s his sweetheart and she looks up at him and she smiles. Some of the lights go off, signaling the patrons to go to their rooms or home to their own beds.
“OK, Allie. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“What? Baby. It’s Saturday night.”
“I never turn down a free meal. Or a drink. Or a room. I’ll see you in the morning. I know how to get in. Don’t forget to tip the waitress.” Theresa goes back to work and Alex pays his bill before going back to his room to wait.