BY TIM GRUTZMACHER
This a the first of a two-part story. Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.
I’ve had eight shots
DARLENE INHALED her shot. She absorbed it. To her it was as essential as oxygen. I started to feel as though I had been duped, that she had this whole scheme cooked up before she sidled up next to me. I’ve thought that others think of me as an easy mark, a real rube. I like to think that my gullibility isn’t entirely a product of stupidity, but my belief that people aren’t really as awful as they are. The ounce of Jim Beam slid down her throat betraying not even the slightest look of pain on her face. To her it was sustenance, she thrived on anything toxic. I felt a green wave of nausea rising up in me and I hung my head and let out a sigh that seeped out as a sickly groan.
I was at Lefty’s, as most of my stories these days start, looking out the window, willing the sun to go down to soften the ramshackle establishment. The barroom was small, a house of its size you would call cozy, but I can confidently say nobody has ever affixed that description to Lefty’s. Around the L-shaped bar were about ten stools in varying degrees of disrepair held tight to the ever sticky floor like vinyl stalagmites. A well worn pool table relegated, like a disobedient child, to a dimly lit corner. Billy was behind the bar, dumping buckets of ice into the bin, seemingly disappointed that the menial task didn’t kill as much time as he’d hoped. He and I rarely discussed anything other than baseball, and with the home team 20 games out of first in late August we found ourselves without anything to talk about.
Billy had stocked the bar for the crowd that surely wouldn’t come that night and cleaned off those bottles of booze that had become purely decorative. Summer brought the smells of stagnate, baked-in beer mixed with overripe citrus fruits and a general mustiness that apparently nothing short of an exorcism will remove. I needed to step outside now and again to get some air. As I was kicking a cigarette butt off the sidewalk into the street, a man walked by me pulling his boy of about three in a plastic wagon. The little boy said “hi” to me with the genuine enthusiasm only a kid can convey and hurriedly told me that they were out for a walk. I offered the most innocuous hello that I had which still burst forth sharp and craggy. His dad apologized for his son’s geniality, fixed his eyes on the sidewalk, and lugged the wagon past. The boy rested his chin on the lip of the wagon, his jowls jiggling with every crack in the sidewalk, and halfheartedly waved his pudgy little mitt at me as if participating in a parade against his will. I couldn’t help but wonder how the man explained me to his kid when they were out of earshot.
“You’re not looking too good. You sure you don’t want to give up?” she said.
“There’s no quit in this guy.”
There is no justifiable reason to be at a bar during the day all by your lonesome. And in a place like this nobody ever asks you for one. I should have never even been there, but sometimes there are advantages in having nowhere to go. I should have been out pursuing a hobby. The one time I tried to quit drinking, everybody told me that I needed to do something constructive with my time. I never figured out what that meant. I’ve wondered what the grownups my age do on Saturdays. I had long lost touch with those in upright society. I’ve never been able to make myself care about the things that they do and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. I imagined them to be washing their cars, or mowing their lawns, or heading to picnics with a dish to pass and the recipe at the ready were someone to ask for it. I know they’re out there; I catch a glimpse of them sometimes through the barroom window. That glass feels much like the partition of an animal exhibit at the zoo. What was on the other side was scary yet fascinating and I wondered how long I would make it in that world before being ripped to pieces.
“So are you warming to the idea yet?” she asked me after adding a third tier to her shot glass pyramid.” It could be fun. I could learn how to cook .I bet I’d be pretty good at it.”
“I just don’t see what’s in it for me.”
“So that’s all that matters to you? You could perform one selfless act before you die, Steve. I’m sure there is something I could give you that you might want,” she said clumsily brushing her cadaverous hand against mine.
“Well, it’s not like you’re asking me to help you move or something. This is quite a bit bigger.”
“Not really. If anything this is much easier, you don’t really have to do fucking anything. You can just hang out and continue with these worthwhile pursuits of yours.”
“I just don’t think that it is something that you enter so lightly. I don’t know, I guess I’m old fashioned.”
She gave me a look that I had come to know all too well. A look that comes with the sad realization that someone isn’t all that you had hoped they would be. It was disappointment and it was the first time that I had seen it from her. Having been let down by nearly every man she had ever known, I thought that it would be no more troublesome to her than a rain shower and didn’t anticipate the disconsolate expression.
“But we had a deal. That doesn’t mean anything to you?”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t think that I can do it.”
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll be sure not to take up any more of your time.” She began to gather her things up off the bar and stuff them into her cavernous bag.
“Wait,” I said as I grabbed her wrist. She turned her head slightly in my direction careful not to catch my eye. “It’s your turn to buy.”
Shots for me: 2
The first time getting drunk at Lefty’s was magical. All the men had tales of conquest and comic misadventure, the women mysterious and fetching with a level of sophistication I thought nonexistent in this town. Those romantic notions of this place were dashed after each subsequent retelling of those tales and finding the mysteries easily solvable. And the elegant women vanished leaving me to wonder if they had only existed in the boozy ether. It was disheartening to find that these people were no better than me. Of course that revelation came to me after I had rented the apartment directly above the bar. I was thinking longingly about a watering hole that could actually improve my mood, if such a thing exists, when Darlene pulled open the heavy glass door and managed to get inside just before it snapped shut. She used every bit of her slight frame to swing her large, weighty purse onto the bar. It landed with a thud and several pill vials, labels crudely scraped off, tumbled out and skittered down the bar in my direction.
“Why you’re a veritable walking apothecary,” I said collecting her vials, each one weightier than I was expecting, and handed them back.
She wore her hair much longer than a woman her age should, usually tied into a braid that ended just north of the crack of her ass. She wore it this way more and more often, I assumed to hide the grey that seems to have been poured on top of her head and was spider webbing down her black tresses. She had said that the guys like to have something to hang on to when she’s on all fours and she needs any sort of distinction from the younger girls that she can get. She was too skinny, the kind that people over 40 only attain through chain smoking and food aversion. But despite her best efforts, she was still beautiful. She always had a little glint in her eye and a fiendish smile turned up on one side. She always looked at me like I was the subject of an inside joke that only she knew, like she had just had a sex dream about me where I ravaged her in ways she’s never known. Though she was perpetually frazzled, a live wire of nervous energy, I noticed that her hands were shaking more than usual. Her eyes were red, but lucid and her makeup looked as if she applied it with the back of her hand. Billy placed her usual Beam and Coke with an additional shot on the side in front of her.
“Are you all right? You kind of look like hell if you don’t mind my saying,” I said as she gulped down her shot seemingly not hearing me.
“Oh, I’ve been better.”
“You’ve looked it too.” I waited for her to take offense to the slight but she didn’t seem to hear it.
“So what are you up to today?” she asked me as her eyes darted about the place like she expected an ambush to burst forth from behind the pool table.
“You’re looking at it. I’m probably going to be here for a good while.”
“You wanna get married?” she asked me without taking her eyes off the bar, spinning her shot glass in small circles.
“Sure, why the hell not — wait, you mean to you?”
“I don’t know, today, tomorrow, soon.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but I never thought of you as the marrying type.”
“Me neither and I’m probably not but I think I wanna give it a shot. I could be the marrying type; I know how to take care of a man. You should know that better than anyone.”
“Why would you want to marry me?” I asked her. I had all but given up on the prospect of ever getting married. I had been engaged twice before the girls came to their senses and broke it off. The first one said that I had a temper and the second that I drank too much. I would argue those points if I could.
“It’s just one of those things that you’re supposed to do in life, right? And I could probably do a lot worse than you,” she said. And I knew that she could do a lot worse than me because she has. She’s come into the bar on the arms of countless guys over the years, from trash straight out of the gutter to suits, but she treated them all the same. They were ATMs and she knew all the right buttons to push. She would drape herself around their necks as long as they were laying money down on the bar. If they were holding out, she would whisper something in their ears, which never failed to loosen the purse strings.
“I don’t know how I could turn down such a romantic proposal. Also, traditionally I think you’re supposed to date someone before you marry them. I’m not sure though it’s been quite awhile for me.”
“People date for years before getting married and still get divorced, so what the fuck. Why waste time?”
“Time is one thing that I’ve got plenty of. What I don’t have much of is money and patience and I think you need some of both to get married.”
“Shit, as much as you’re in here you probably don’t have as much time as you think. Well, I know that you’re a betting man, so how about a wager?” she said as she motioned for Billy. “How about a good old-fashioned drinking contest? If I win you have to marry me. You have to dress up and look happy at the ceremony, the whole nine.”
“A drinking contest? That’ll be a good story to tell the kids one day.”
“Kids? Sorry Stevie, this bakery closed its doors a long time ago. One and done for me.”
I’ve only heard her acknowledge her daughter a couple of times. I even met her once under unfortunate circumstances Darlene called her for a ride home one day when one of her suitors unceremoniously dumped her at the bar. Her daughter was about 22 and despite her upbringing seemed to have a pretty good head on her shoulders. Judging by her hair and dress I figured that she was a lesbian, which was good should her mother’s taste in men be genetic. She stormed into the bar and gave Darlene a guilt trip the likes of which would’ve made my old man jealous.
“What do I get if I win?”
“I’ll tell you what, for the first month I’m like goddamned 7-11. I’m always open and I’ll allow whatever freaky shit you’re into.”
“Why not?” I said as I extended my hand to her. She grasped it weakly. I’ve wagered a lot more for a lot less before, but I’ve never made a bet that I wouldn’t mind losing.
Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion.