Songs from a Bar (James H. Lucas)

A mixed CD is loaded in the stereo as a pint, the color of volcanic soil and filled to the brim, is placed before me. The first song, a punk rock redo of an 80’s pop song. The bartender bounces his head in time to the music. The bar is wood and brick and feels organic. Vintage advertisements for foreign beers decorate the walls. There are pool tables (with red rather than green felt), dart boards, foosball, shuffleboard, and a computer trivia game that sits at the end of the bar, sending out electronic calliope music, enticing players. There are two bartenders, a younger bearded man in a well-worn ball cap and a taller, thinner man whose face betrays his inner thought that maybe, just maybe, he has been at this job too long.

                I nurse my beer, coaxing it along, slowly welcoming it as though we were virgins on our wedding night. It is dark, strong and slightly bitter. It is also familiar, an old friend whose complaints and curmudgeonly ways are well known, accepted and embraced by me.

                The mirror over the bar sits higher than most and without a slant, thus my reflection is only visible from the eyebrows up. I swivel in my chair, my drink held like a prop, and scan the room, hoping to find a friendly, or at least interesting, face.

                There is a woman to my left who sits with two men. The men are short, clean-cut and non-descript. Something in their appearance makes me think that they would be dull conversationalists, the kind you discuss the weather, the economy or perhaps sports with. They strike me as men devoid of passion, alive but not living. The woman was more interesting. She’s wearing a black and white dress and short denim jacket; meaty, full thighs descend into legs, slopping into black heels. She has thick brown hair that falls past her shoulders and I fantasize about how that hair would look splayed over a pillow. There is  something off in her appearance however, every part of her, her shoulders, her arms, her head, her facial features seem too large, not disproportionate, and not overweight merely oversized, like a preschool toy. There is no ring on her finger, so neither of these men are her husband, perhaps one of them is her boyfriend, maybe the one who sits farther from her, the one in the sky-blue polo shirt that looks a size too small.

                I turn back and watch the bartender watch the room. They are experts in humanity, more so than any psychologist, sociologist or priest. Just by scanning  the room, arms crossed, a towel draped over their shoulder, they can tell who is going to have one beer and who is going to have one too many. Hourly, they take turns going outside to smoke and shake their heads, complaining about “the fucking people that come into this place.” Every one of them could write a book about what they’ve seen and heard standing behind that bar.

                The song changes: Warren Zevon.

                 Another group arrives, middle-aged businessmen in blazers and blue jeans. You can practically smell their bank accounts as they arrive to brush elbows with the middle class. They are slumming it, eager to talk to those who make their livings with their backs and their hands, only to return home later and giggle with the little woman at the memory of those they had encountered. To them, a construction worker or sales clerk is as fascinating and thrilling as an exhibit in a turn-of-the-century freak show. There is one woman that catches my eye. She hangs on the arm of a man with a hard face and soft hands. She is one who has buried her head in the sand when she saw age approaching. Her too-tight jeans, low neckline and dyed hair scream of artificiality, she advertises more than she can deliver, like a great deal on a used car. Her lips are a little too red and her hips a little too wide, but there is something about her, something alluring that makes you want to fuck her, roughly, from behind, to let her know that yes, she was desired, but not for long. Perhaps it is the same impulse that leads us to walk along the tops of walls or swing from monkey bars. It’s there, play with it, but forget it as soon as you walk away.

                I did not come to this bar to meet a woman. There are other bars, some within easy walking distance of this one, where men and women arrive alone, but leave together. In those places, the décor is tacky, the music is too loud and everywhere you look you see the tits and ass of giggling women and the cocksure grins and forced casualness of men. The typical woman would be one with a too polite, condescending smile, one honed from years of waiting tables, a tan that is bought and paid for and clothes that are too short and too tight. Her attempt to make herself extraordinary merely emphasizes her plainness. The typical man is tall, with baggy jeans, wearing an oxford shirt un-tucked, sleeves rolled to his forearms with a tee-shirt on underneath. His hair would be short, gelled and spiky. I’ve sat in there before, a fly in the ointment, a homunculus amongst statues. I’ve waited in a far corner, observing, a zoologist amongst the apes.

                The song changes: The Beastie Boys.

                There is an old man a few seats down from me who is drunk, loud and coarse. He yells his opinions about “the goddamn faggots” and “fucking shitheads,” to his buddy, a younger pudgy guy with big ears who laughs, urging the old man on. The old man has a white moustache and long gray hair that sticks out from under his Panama hat in a pony tail. Others in the bar shift uncomfortably, pretending not to notice him. The bartenders move slowly, circling him, the weak member of the herd who must be expelled. The pudgy one senses the encroaching authorities and stands, wobbling, suggesting that they leave, adding, “This place sucks anyway.” The old man nods, sending a disdainful look over the other patrons as if suddenly aware of how repugnant he found them. The atmosphere relaxes as soon as they leave.

                My beer is half-gone. The silent television in the corner shows highlights from a football game earlier in the day. The songs changes again, this time it is an unrecognized singer, lamenting that he has lost his woman and therefore, has lost his way. I nod sipping my beer. I try to think of a woman that I have loved and lost, but come up empty. There are those I’ve touched, loved with fingers and lips, but never my heart. I think of a recent one, Tori, she had a boy’s face but a woman’s body. There were the two of us in my bed, which sits on the floor as I have no railings. Her pale body was opalescent in the moonlight. I remember removing her shirt, revealing the pink satin bra she wore under it, and moaning at the sight of it, “Oh, baby.” Pink was never my color of choice for women, but for some reason, the sight of her on my dingy mattress, light flooding in through the bare window, filed me with wonder and passion. For a moment, I was a young boy again, staring at the images of women in the underwear section of the Sears catalog. Women became new, exciting and unknown again.

                I don’t even notice that my beer is gone until the older bartender speaks to me. Making a gun with his thumb and forefinger, he points to the empty glass in my hand and asks, “Another?”

                No, I think, but nod.

                The music changes. More upbeat than the previous song, but not loud. This music is unobtrusive, background but not invisible, like a soft breeze that makes the trees hiss happily.

                A new pint is placed before me, expectant, like a puppy eager to play. I smile and drink, letting my eyes scan the photographs taped to the wall behind the bar. Most of these photos seem impromptu, with genuine smiles, peace signs and hugs abound. The women in these photos are attractive, but not beautiful. The type of woman you would happily go home to, but not the type you’d find in a magazine. The men are delicately scruffy with balanced casualness, goatees and old tee-shirts.

                More happiness to my right. A small group of friends has encountered another small group, a high-pitched chorus of “Hey!” ascends at they embrace. They begin grilling one of the members of the group, a tall thin man whose clothes hang from him, suggesting recent weight loss, about his wife and new baby. They are doing well, he tells them, and they are visiting relatives upstate. My inner cynic wonders if this man will take this opportunity to cheat on his wife, while my inner optimist smiles at the joy this man radiates as he recounts for his friends the first time he saw his daughter. My optimist wins out, and unseen to either group or the man himself, I raise my glass to him.

                Over at the pool tables is a young couple, obviously on their first date, all smiles and awkwardness. Her green scarf resembles the arm of some monster created by Jim Henson.  His shaggy hair sticks out from under a faded ball cap, he is scruffy, but deliberately so, manufactured to appear less than perfect like a façade on a movie set. They play pool, she watches him shoot with admiration, smiling. I wonder how accustomed she is to being treated this well by boys, if I had to guess, I’d say only  a handful in her life have ever paid attention to her, I think this not because she’s unattractive, but because of her demeanor, the smile that says she isn’t used to this. Beautiful women, the ones for whom men are a hobby, are always on the lookout for a better deal. It’s her turn and he watches her shoot, and there, behind the boyish smile and casual flirting was lust. When she leans over the table he is imagining how it would be to be behind her, beneath her, on top of her. His quick glances at her breasts, ass and thighs don’t go unnoticed by her, but she is far from offended. She relishes it, enjoying it, bending over further than necessary, smiling at him the whole time, her eyes sparkle with…what? Was this love, the seedling of a lifelong romance? Or would it be over as soon as he flushed the condom? There is attraction, obviously, growing beyond the merely physical.

                I’m envious of the boy with his mop of hair and falsely aged clothes. I want the pretty girl to smile at me like that, or one just as pretty, prettier. I take a big, greedy swallow of my drink to compensate, my cheeks puffing out like a chipmunk.

                “I always knew you’d wind up a sad lonely old fucker in a bar,” Faye had once told me. Faye; who I’ve known since high school and have loved continuously since, even if now I’ve grown from longing for the day she’d be mine to merely day dreaming about how she’d look naked. Faye knows me well, but not as well as she thinks she does. Why have I loved Faye for so long? She’s thinner now than she used to be, but she’s still got baby fat, her nose is a little too big, she never keeps appointments, returns phone calls and tends to disappear for months on end. Why? Who knows. Thinking about Faye, the only woman I ever wanted to love makes me finish my drink.

                The song changes: The Boss.

                Next to me, a group of men I didn’t notice approach strike up a loud conversation about whether or not Pittsburgh was right to trade such and such player. I’m not paying attention. Football was never my game. I wave the bartender over. He sees my empty glass, nods and brings me another. Good man. 

                Beer! Good for what ales you! my father used to say, one of his wittier puns.

                Just as the beer is placed on a fresh coaster before me, I see Keith come in, carrying his plastic grocery bag, one with uncountable wrinkles, showing its numerous re-uses, packed with comic books. Some are bagged and boarded, some just shoved in there. He works in the newsroom of the local NPR affiliate, having started there as a teenager back when Nixon was first elected, but he won’t discuss the news. He won’t say much, not until he’s read his stack of comics and drunk at least two pints; even then he’d rather discuss Jack Kirby to Jack Kennedy, Graham Ingles to George Bush, Sergio Aragones to Spiro Agnew. I nod to him as he enters and he smiles in return. Many people use bars as libraries, not me, I find it too noisy and the people to fascinating to focus on a book. There’s Penny, for example, she was engaged once, but he ended it, must have been about two and a half years ago now, she’s up here, usually on Fridays, sipping red wine and reading the classics. She and I had a lengthy discussion once about Voltaire, I found Candide funnier than she did, although she assured me she “appreciated the humor.”

                I’m drinking my beer faster now, I can feel my eyes getting heavy. I have to take a leak, so I place a coaster on top of my glass, bar language for “I’ll be right back.” There’s no music in the bathroom, and the life noise of the bar is muffled, like a memory you’re starting for forget. I piss, somewhat disappointed that the stall is free of graffiti.  I return to the bar to find the area I was sitting is now occupied by a group of twenty-somethings, one of which, a fat redhead with curly hair, pushes my glass aside as if it’s very presence annoys her.  Without a word, I reach around her to get my drink. Without a stool, I feel lost, adrift, unsure of where to stand or where to look. 

                The song has changed. It’s Tom Waits, one of my favorites. I drink my beer quickly, scanning the room, hoping to find someone else to study, but the room seems well categorized.  The CD skips, the bartender walks to the stereo, annoyed, and goes to the next track.  I place a twenty on the bar, using my half-empty beer to anchor it. Hands in my pockets, I walk out into the cool evening and head home.

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