(originally published in Avenue, June 2005)
By Brian Tucker
Standing in a bar somewhere feeling worn. It’s discouraging because it’s early to be in a bar and be tired. That’s not bravado, just the current truth. Eleven o’clock, maybe. Its night, just doesn’t feel dark enough. Dark is after midnight. After midnight signals a new day and it’s always dark. You 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. You heart isn’t in it, it’s somewhere else and beer will do if they only had what you liked. 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 status.
At the back of the bar someone looks familiar. It’s John C. McGinley from 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 hear the chatter climb and some people are staring. They see too. They’re snapping their fingers and saying “It’s…It’s…He’s…”
You walk past 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 and you tip the bottle. You buy the beer and you know the girl selling it. She asks if it’s cold enough. 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 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.
You tell your friend you’re gone. You say you’re gonna get pizza and call a cab. He asks if you’re sure and you say yes, walking away. 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 light of tanning bulbs. Get out in the sun and work.
The police already out in force preparing for 2 a.m., their dark uniforms stand out firm on the sidewalk, the night trapped in a subtle haze of martial law. Where are the insects are that crowd the light bulbs? On vacation until its sweaty hot. Insects choose between fluorescent drug and the sweat on your skin. But not the girls, never sweating when they go out. Their tanned skin glows at night, glimmering in the low light of night life.
Pizza. Late night antidote to the crawl in your stomach. You know the guy serving slices, its ______. He’s a surfer from your creative non-fiction class. The guy lives for it. You talk awhile, you order, you say you need a cab. He hands you a phone list of them 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.
Your cell phone rings, vibrates in your pocket. It’s the cab company. Way early. Night is still early. Through the windows 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 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 the van-taxi. People get in and you feel for the transmission of this thing.
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 a 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 home. 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 gets hot quick. You’re all packed in there like a prison transfer 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 fucking air.” Someone asks about changing the music. You guess its modern country. You sit calmly in your place, trying against all the noise. You slowly eat pizza and drink 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.
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 eat slower.
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 and never revealing her face.
“Strip Club,” 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 later revises that statement to $12,000. And he’s going to spend it tonight. Twelve grand? In his pocket? 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 fucks with his money man they’ll have to deal with him. He’ll kill anyone who messes with him. Good friend, you think. For how long, you think. You sit quiet, staying in that eating-your-pizza state of mind.
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 wish for the Misfit to show up. You bet the driver does too. How she can be so calm through all of this is an exercise in 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, and 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 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 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 bullshit, 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 you both say nothing the on the way home. You wonder how many times a night she has to deal with nonsense. You wonder how long it will take you to get to sleep.
The trip costs you sixteen dollars. How much it would have cost to have an enjoyable cab ride home?
You go inside and drink some water and get comfortable. It’s taken nearly an hour to get home after 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. Listening to UNKLE ‘s Psyence Fiction during the drive back to Wrightsville Beach you realize you’re backtracking again.