Vernon slumped on the beat up, key-scratched, elbow-smudged, cigarette-burned, blade-chopped, liquid- and vomit- and chili-cheese-stained oak bar all by himself. Slurping club soda from a highball – lemon atop the outer rim – he sat knocking out games of video solitaire – drool drops dabbing the screen – in the far left corner of the bar.
The bar’s still, stale air – leftover cigarette smoke settled into the wood grain walls – reeked of loneliness and decay. It was especially prevalent during the daytime, a time when only the maintenance drinkers haunted these halls. Less than 8 hours prior, it was an atmosphere of feigned life and laughter. However, the hangers-on, the ones soon filling coffins instead of barstools, preferred a dusty backdrop of darkness juxtaposed against beer signs, some still in working condition, adorning the walls, and the occasional open door, whenever another lost soul wandered in. A cardboard Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, leaned against a faded Joe Montana as two Schmidt’s beer fish lights hung over a tilted pool table. Plywood lay beneath two legs of the table providing a sad attempt at “leveling the playing field.”
A ceiling fan played air rhythm to Hank Williams’s howl in “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”. Empty bottles and schooners, both powdered with chalk dust, sat atop a brown cigarette machine. A variety of thirty or so unopened beer cans lined a shelf behind the bar. Each can strategically placed in alphabetical order with dates ranging all the way back to the mid-70s — Coors, Hamms, Olympia, Schlitz, Strohs — all with original logos in pristine condition. Attached to each aluminum relic was the ambience of a time when even beer cans required an opener.
“Do your fucking job, Charles!”
Sig wiped down the bar with quick, pointed strokes. It was as if he were attempting to paint a jagged mountain range in Pledge and towel debris. Being the owner, Sig really didn’t enjoy wiping down his own bar. He preferred taking care of more important things, like paperwork, ordering, fixing anything that needed it, and schmoozing with the customers. Especially the ladies. He was self-proclaimed, “lady aficionado.” According to urban legend, many of the scuff marks on the wooden bar top were formed, not just from broken shards of glass and coke-blade chops, but from of finger nails of different sizes and strengths.
According to Charles, another urban legend suggested a secret, underground bungalow somewhere within / connected to the storeroom. Whether Charles knew anything at all was beside the point. It was the principle of imagination: drunks love speculation.
Day drunks had plenty of time to speculate. The “unhireables” — a group name decided on by many of the pre-noon anti-socialites — waxed conspiratorial while normal people worked.
Weekday “Day” drunks: a sad lot of daydreams drowned in desolation.
Sig’s gruff, projecting voice cracked through the sour, dust particle-ridden air.
The stillness of the bar was disrupted by the sound of a toilet flushing. Charles quickly walked out of the bathroom and into the bar.
“Sorry, Sig,” Charles spoke, unable to look Sid in the eyes. “I had the shits real bad last night.”
Sig stared at his employee’s hands.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Charles looked down his own hands.
“I washed ’em,” he said.
“No you didn’t, Char-Uhlz. You didn’t FUCKING wash your hands. You know why I know this, CHAR-UHLZ?”
“Sig. I washed ’em with that alcohol stuff. The shit on the wall.”
Sid’s face began to shade itself a light shade of maroon. Sig did not get the same shade of “beet red” as some. His shades resembled a vodka sauce.
“Come here, Charles…Chuck…Fuck.”
Sig slapped Charles on the back and pushed him along towards the bathroom.
“Sig,” Charles started to stop, “at least let me go in there and spray the bathroom. At least let me do that for you. It fucking stinks in there. It was a rough night…”
“Ok,” Sig shouted through gritted teeth. “Hurry up. Or…better yet… while you are in there, bring me the empty bag of hand sanitizer.”
Charles walked back to the bathroom. The hiss of room spray drifted lightly through the back room. The smell of “clean linen” was still overpowered by the scent of rot and fermentation.
(added on 7/2/19)
Kool-Aid Man is what they used to call him.
Until he had his 4th heart attack, it was a term of endearment even though Carl didn’t see it as such. These days, they called him Couch Man or barstool pigeon. His most familiar bar comrades called him “Kool-Aid” for short.
After the first cardiac arrest, a victim should slow down on all heavy partying, high cholesterol eating, and smoking cigarettes. Carl (aka Kool-Aid) was not a “rule-follower”.
Following his 4th “arrest,” the bar legend emerged that Carl had no blood left in his body. Very few thought it possible that any blood could flow through his tightly clogged arteries. Others say that they heard doctors replaced Kool-Aid’s heart with the inside of a vacuum cleaner in order to keep the smoke that he inhaled from invading the rest of his body. To the handful of wet brains in the bar, this was a rational explanation. To the rest of the world, completely absurd.
Those who knew Kool-Aid the longest wondered how the man was still alive. Along with his daily intake of tar and resin from 40+ cigarettes, Carl’s daily diet consisted of scrambled eggs and toast in the morning, followed by various snacks from Sig’s “bar food” options. His favorites included Cheez-its, chili cheese Fritos, Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, pickled sausages, and Starburst.
Newbies to the day drinking crowd at Sig’s were confused when they were introduced to Kool-Aid. Many expected him to only drink Kool-Aid, or be the token “teetotaler” that every bar has at some point while the person either: A) cleans up his/her act while on paper with the courts from DUI; B) is rehabbing from health issues; or C) just had to give it up but didn’t want to give up the social aspect. Although it should have been obvious by Carl’s size and shape, many did not recall who or what the original “Kool-Aid Man” was.
“I can’t do it, Mike. If I weren’t in a better place right now, I would consider it, but I don’t want to go through the pain again. You need to move on too.”
Christy only stuttered when she was emotional. Although able to maintain composure in face and body, Mike could hear the tremble as her words trailed off.
It had only been six months since they “walked away”, but it seemed “way longer” to Mike. It wasn’t the first time they broke up. It always followed a similar pattern for both of them post-breakup: a series of one-night-stands, followed by a series of late night calls to each other, then back to living with each other, going through the same rollercoaster before burning out in a drunken debacle on some random weeknight when most “normies” (Mike’s counselor’s words) were doing normal things, like participating in community activities, attending their children’s activities, or enjoying a nice, quiet night in after a long day at work.
“I know we said this was going to be temporary for now,” Mike spoke, “but are we just going to put it off another few months, or are you talking about ending it right now?”
Bill sat at one of the low pub tables in the corner.
“What the hell,” Bill said in disgust.
Bill took the lid of his cup and lobbed it on the table. Fumbling around in his shirt pocket, Bill pulled out a clumped up pack of smokes. Pulling a bent, tobacco-leaking cigarette from the cellophane and examined the remaining supplies for the night.
“Three,” he said with a rasping gasp of a laugh. “Three fucking cigarettes left. Welp…sorry lungs.”
He looked around the bar. Walking into a bar at 10 a.m. was not a new thing to Bill. Depending on where he was, walking into a bar at 8 a.m., 6 a.m., or never leaving from his entrance at 8 p.m. the night before, Bill found any time of day to be appropriate for a drink in a room of “like-minded degenerates.”
“You ever think about how much of a waste of time it is to call people by their preferred names let alone preferred PROnounzzz.”
Bill looked to his right. He couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the table across the corner.
“Frankly,” the blobberer blobbed, “I don’t give a fuck what you want to be called, ya see. You can ask me to call you a goddamn hyena for all I care. I may laugh a bit, but if you want to be called a goddamn hyena, I’ll call you a GODDAMN hyena, ya know. Fuck it. Doesn’t matter. But,” he stopped to guzzle then gather his composure, “…BUT don’t try tellin’ me I HAVE to do anything. If you tell me I “HAVE” to call you a hyena, I am going to tell you to go FUCK yerself. Understand?”
Bill raised his brows, rolled up his sleeves, and pulled the cigarette from his lips. He put the cigarette out in front of his face at the same distance he would hold up a small-print menu that he was having trouble reading.
“And don’t get me started on the goddamn pronounz. Pronounz? Pro-fucking-nounz? Come the fuck on!!”
Bill sipped his beer. He wanted to get up, walk over to the table, and join in the conversation. He wanted to feel the freedom that his neighbor was living. He wanted to speak his mind and get approval.
He wanted to not be alone.
“You tell me I have to call you ‘she’ when you are a ‘he,’ I may tell you to go fuck yourself.”
Bill leaned back in his chair and pulled another crinkled cigarette from the pack.
“2 to go. Down the fuckin’ snatch.”
Bill chuckled to himself as he lit the stick.
Bill turned around to face the screaming voice.
Sig stared into Charles’s eyes. Charles’s eyes continually shifted from side to side, trying to focus on anything but Sig’s stare.
Charles turned to the right and stared at the wall.
“Charles,” Sig turned it down to a calmer tone. “I can’t keep paying you if you aren’t going to do your job.”
Charles kept looking towards the wall, his shoulders began to fidget as if he was needing to pee but had to hold it.
“What’s it gonna be, Charles?”
Charles continued to stare at the wall, but his right hand started flicking each individual finger out in a consistent firm rhythm.
“Did you hear me, Charles?”
“I heard ya, Sig. Now can I get back to cleaning?”
To be continued..
(Revisions added 10/7/21)