30 June, 2009

Mac the Elder


It was comical. Kind of. Mac the Elder would saunter through the door everyday around the same time and everyone at the bar would turn and call out his name. It was hard not to like the old guy. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. And he always went and said greeted everybody he knew. Sometimes that was a lot of people.

“Charlie, how ya doin? How’s that wife of yours and her varicose veins?

“Tommy, Tommy, what do ya know, huh? Those White Sox of yours having a good year yet?”

“Mary, Mary, love of my life! Where have you been all my life?”

He liked to flirt with the waitresses; but it was all in harmless fun. Sometimes he laid it on pretty thick, but the girls never paid it any mind; it was sort of a right of passage to new waitresses to have her ass grabbed by Mac the Elder. If there’s an advantage to being an old man, it’s that you can get away with doing shit that a younger man couldn’t. The last guy I saw playing grab ass with one of the waitresses here got kicked out. But Mac was safe. Everybody knew Mac and Mac knew them.

Once he made the rounds, he’d take his seat next to the brain trust and settle down to the business at hand: the horses. Rico and Bob were usually there before him, and they updated him on their success or failure. Mac the Elder made his bets carefully, and always in small amounts. Sometimes he’d go in on a bet with one of the brain trust, but mostly he made dime superfecta bets. His system was numerological. He only picked horses whose odds could be divided into prime numbers. For example, if a horse had three to one odds, he’d probably pick it. If the horse had a jaunty walk, that was one more reason. “The trick to gambling,” I overheard him say once, “is not to get in too far. It’s all in good fun, see? Just go into it thinking you’re gonna relax, keep your numbers small, small, small. Have fun. That way, when you lose, it’s not a big deal. I’m never out more than six bucks.”

He was always conscious of the time; he usually had a bag from the nearby grocery store with him – a bottle of milk or orange juice or something from the meat counter. That was his excuse to get out of the house. Mac was retired and sitting pretty; but he didn’t want to be one of those retirees who loafed around waiting to die. He’d made some smart investments back when the markets were good and the economy wasn’t in the toilet, and he was still trying to use his money to make more money. It wasn’t because he needed it, he said. No. “It’s something to do,” he said. “Besides, with the way my kid spends it, it’s any wonder I have anything at all.”

Mac the Younger was his son. Of course, Mac the Elder was in his seventies, so the Mac the Younger was really more like Mac the middle-aged. He’d come in all the time, drink expensive drinks and lay out more money on the horses than he had. Once I overheard Mac the Elder telling Sammy that he had to pay to get Mac the Younger’s electricity turned back on. “And he works!” Elder Mac grumbled. “You’d think he would know how to take care of things by now.”

This day in particular, he was talking up a trip he was taking out to California. “I’ll be gone a couple three days,” he told Ted and Rico. “Going out to visit my daughter and her family.”

That was the first I’d ever heard him mention somebody besides his son. Apparently was the daughter was well married – she’d landed herself an architect in San Fernando, had a few kids. They had a nice house. Their oldest daughter was graduating from high school. Mac the Younger wasn’t going, apparently. There was some bad blood between the siblings (I’d heard Mac the Younger drone on about it once) and it was better if the brother offered his congratulations long distance.

“You’re going to have to get along without me for a few days, fellas,” he said and laughed. He was walking around the bar again, talking to people. He could only sit for so long, even when he was watching the horses run. He came around to me. “Hey, there,” he said. “I see you in here all the time and I know we’ve talked a few times. I’m Mac.” He extended his hand and slapped me on the back.

We hadn’t talked so much as he had talked at me once or twice. I shook his hand and told him my name. He decided take that as a sign that he could sit and talk to me.

“So what do you do?” he asked.

“I drink,” I said.

He laughed. Mac always liked a joke, even when there wasn’t one. “No, no. I mean your job. Your work. What do you do?”

“My last job was in a warehouse,” I said, “but that didn’t work out. I have high hopes of finding some other degrading occupation in the near future.”

“I worked for thirty-five years,” he said. “And now I pretty much do what I want. I was a pilot – you know, flew the big passenger jets.”

“Sounds like interesting work.”

“It could be,” he said. “I was gone a lot, you know, but, heh, that’s not always a bad thing. Now I’m home all the time and my wife doesn’t know what do with me.”

I bet. “It’s a good thing you come here, then,” I said. “Nothing holds a marriage together like frequent trips to the bar.”

Mac laughed again. “You’re not married, I guess?”

“No,” I said. “Haven’t found anybody who wants to live the posh lifestyle I live.”

“Women, you know,” he said in a confidential tone, “all they want is a little security. Whether they work themselves or whether they stay home. It’s all about security.”

“I can see that.”

Mac fell silent for a split second. “My son, he works,” he went on. “He’s some kind of supervisor over at the university.”

“Good for him.”

“Yeah. It should be,” he shook his head. “So, you ever watch the horses?”

“Sure,” I said.

“You ever play? You know, bet?”

“When I can afford to lose,” I said.

“That’s good,” he said. “Most people, you know, they make the mistake of putting more into it than they have. And you know you can’t ever really win that way.”

No one ever really wins. “Yeah. But I do like to watch them run. They’re beautful animals.”

“What about the dogs?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t like the dog races. They treat those dogs like shit. The horses, at least, when they’re done racing the go out to kiddie farms and carry five year old around, or they’re put out to stud. Dogs get used until they’re used up.”

My answer must’ve surprised Mac. The look on his face suggested that he was going through the script in his head to find the appropriate response. “Yeah, well,” he backpedaled a little, “I see what you mean. But what I was going to tell you was that the odds are usually better and so is the pay out. You can put down LESS and walk away with MORE.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I did okay today. Won one, lost one. That’s probably as good as it’s going to get.”

“You never know,” I said. “That’s why they call it gambling.”

He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “That’s true, that’s true.” He took a few breathes. “Well, you probably heard, I’m going out of town for a few days.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard something about it.”

“It’ll be nice to see my daughter and her family,” he said. “My granddaughter’s going to college in the fall. San Diego State. It’s not the BEST school… but it’s school.”

“Very true,” I said. “Does she know what she’s going to study?”

“I think she’s going to be a teacher.”

I nodded. “Worthy occupation.”

Mac nodded. “Yeah. I think so. I’m just glad she’s not one of these kids who wants to go to school to ‘find herself’ or whatever. She’d got a plan.”

“It helps.”

“Yeah,” he went on. “You know, and I don’t mean anything by this…” he paused and looked around to make sure someone wasn’t around who might be offended, “… but too many people are just wandering around doing NOTHING. You know? Back in my day, you went out and got a job and that was it.”

I didn’t answer. He didn’t really give me the space.

“But she’s got a plan. She’s smart. Got a solid head on her shoulders. Good parents.”

I nodded.

“My son,” he went on, “he was married once. But it didn’t work out. I told him before he married her that she wasn’t ,ah, right in the HEAD, you know? I mean, she was NICE enough and all that. But she was just kinda FLAKY, you know?” He used his hands to illustrate flaky. “I mean, the woman had two college degrees and she wanted to go back and get a third. Don’t get me wrong,” he looked around again, “education is a great thing. My granddaughter’s going to get an education. But so is DOING something. And all Joyce – that was her name, Joyce – all she wanted to do was go to school and make little clay pots in the shape of people’s heads. I mean, that kind of thing is fine when you’re in elementary school… but she was a grown woman!”

“Yeah,” I said. “That must’ve been rough.” Go away now. My tone was sarcastic. Either he didn’t notice it or he chose to ignore it.

“It was.” He nodded over to Mac the Younger, who was pouring over a racing program and drinking some cocktail with an umbrella in it. “I told him he should get married again. You know, it’ll settle him down. If he finds the right woman, of course.”

Sure, I thought. It’s worked out so well for you. “Maybe some people shouldn’t get married,” I said. “Maybe some people weren’t meant to.”

Mac looked shocked. “What do you mean?”

“Look around here sometime,” I said. “Half the guys who hang out here are divorced. Most of the rest are married, but they come here to get away from their wives and bitch about them. Maybe if they hadn’t gotten married, they wouldn’t feel the need to get away. They could do whatever they wanted and not have to worry about how somebody at home is going to respond.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mac said. “But that’s just how it is. Just ‘cause you complain doesn’t mean you don’t love them. It’s just – I’ve been married for almost 40 years, and I can tell you, it can be tough sometimes, but I’d rather be married than not.”

“But that’s you,” I said. “Maybe your son just shouldn’t get married. I think it takes a temperament, you know? Some people got it. Some people don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with NOT having it.”

Mac shook his head. “Ah, I guess,” he spat out. “Things used to be different,” he said. “Used to be, there wasn’t any question about it.”

And used to be, people used horse drawn carriages to get around and candle sticks to see at night. “I guess things change,” I said.

“I guess they do.” He stood up, slapped my shoulder again, and shook my hand. “Nice talking to you,” he said.

“Take care, Mac,” I said. “Safe travels. Enjoy California.”

He wandered back over to his seat between Mac the Younger and the brain trust. I looked up at the TV looking down at me from on top of the bar. The races at Santa Anita were pushing ahead in spite of an unseasonable rain that had made the track a little muddy. A few minutes later, Mac the Elder grabbed his grocery bag from the freezer behind the bar, said a few goodbyes and grabbed a few of the waitress’s asses. One of them, a new girl with porcelain white skin, read hair, and distinctive features, jumped, squealed, then turned around like she was about to hit him. One of the other girls came over, though, and Mac, ever the gentleman, raised his hand and smiled apologetically. The red head shook her head, but appeared to accept the apology. Then he left without looking at me.

29 June, 2009

Loyce and the Monkey Man

Even though there was a room between Loyce’s and mine, sometimes I still heard what was going over there. Mostly it was just the sounds people make when they fuck; some old wheezer hemming and hawing and laboring through while Loyce played her part and screamed like it was the best sex she ever had. “Oh Daddy,” she’d say, “Oh Daddy. Fuck me. Like that. OOOH YEAH, DADDY!” That kind of shit. It never lasted long, and she was usually sitting out in front of her room smoking a few minutes later. I once asked her what her secret was; she smiled and waved at me with the tip of her index finger. “All guys need is a little finger up the ass,” she said. Then she laughed. “All you all want is a good dickin’ but you too manly and shit to admit it.”

Loyce was pretty good at picking her clientele; she didn’t go in for rough stuff and didn’t care about kink so long as it wasn’t too extreme. And there were all kinds. Sometimes she talked about them. She had regulars who liked being tied up. A few who liked being spanked. She told me she once had a client who paid her a thousand dollars to play mommy while he dressed up like a baby, diaper and all. Listening to her talk made me glad I never took her up on her offers to “help me out.” I never went in for that weird shit; but who’s to say she wouldn’t talk about me to someone else? Sometimes it’s just better to suffer and masturbate. And it’s cheaper.

She was independent; she mentioned that to me several times. “I don’t need no goddamn pimp smacking me around,” she’d say, “and taking all the money I work for.” Every once in a while a creep managed to get by her, but from what I could tell, Loyce did an okay job of taking care of herself.

Once or twice a month, the cop in the silver car would show up. I never asked her about the arrangement, but it was clear that he was a big part of the reason she could operate independently. He’d show up, walk up to her room, and let himself in. He never stayed very long. Sometimes I heard them fucking and she did her Oh Daddy bit and he left. Sometimes he yelled at her and knocked things around. Sometimes she laughed at him. Sometimes she pleaded with him. A couple of times I heard her cry.

I was sitting on my bed, drinking scotch, and watching something on Animal Planet when I heard them. At first, Loyce was all set to do her Oh Daddy bit; then I thought I heard her laugh; then I heard a crash and a thump. Loyce screamed at him. He yelled at her and started slamming things around.

God, I thought. This shit gets OLD. Quick. I turned off the TV and stepped outside to smoke.

“Get outta here,” I head her say. “You get your fat ass and your LIMP DICK outta here you fucking PIG! I don’t need you!”

“Fucking whore,” he growled. “You don’t tell ME what to do.” I heard his hand connect with her and she cried. “Go ahead and cry,” he taunted her. “You think anybody cares about a stupid fat whore like YOU? You think you have friends? You think anybody would notice if you up and blew away?”

She cried some more, but I couldn’t make out the words. He yelled some more. He beat her some more. I thought about breaking it up, but for all I knew the cop had his gun with him too, and it wouldn’t take much for rape to turn into a double homicide. I heard fabric ripping, Loyce sobbing, and the cop grunting. A couple of minutes later it stopped. And a couple of minutes after that, the door to Loyce’s room opened and he stepped out, straightening his tie and carrying his suit coat. “You remember,” he said. “You just fucking remember your place you stupid nigger cunt. Or it may turn out that this place isn’t so safe anymore. All I do is pick up the phone and make one call. You remember Randall? He’d sure like to find your ass again.”

Loyce was sobbing when the cop closed the door. He looked up at me and glared; his bottom jaw was jutting out as he lumbered toward and past me. “What are YOU staring at you junkie motherfucker?”

I didn’t answer him. He pushed me intentionally as he walked by, made his way down to his car, and peeled out of the parking lot. I was about to go back in when Loyce came out of her room wrapped in a red silk robe that looked like it had been run over a couple of times. Her right eye was puffy and she walked like she was sore.

“He’s gone,” I said.

She didn’t answer. I lit up another cigarette and offered her one. She nodded and took the cigarette. I lit it for her. “Thanks,” she said.

After a couple of minutes of her not talking, I decided to go back in my room.

“You heard all that,” she said as I turned to go. “Didn’t you.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“He get a little grumpy sometimes,” she said. “Like to take it out on people.”


She looked at me. “I don’t deserve it,” she said. “I don’t deserve it. Not at all.”

“No one does,” I said.

“I should turn him in,” she said.


“But it won’t do any good, will it?”

“Well,” I said, “it seems like they might be inclined to believe whatever he tells them.”

“ ‘Cause I’m just a whore?” she sneered.

“Because he’s a COP,” I said. “They don’t usually go after one of their own.”

She nodded. “True nuff,” she said. Then she stamped out her cigarette butt. “Thanks again for the smoke,” she said.

I wanted to say something; but nothing I could think of seemed appropriate. Sometimes there just isn’t anything to say. It wasn’t my business. The cop wasn’t my problem. Whoever Randall was wasn’t my problem either. Loyce was looking off at the setting sun in silence. “I got a little bit of scotch,” I said. “You look like you could use a drink.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “I’ll bring it out here,” I said. “What are they gonna do? Arrest us?”

She almost smiled. “Thanks anyway,” she said. Then she turned and walked back into her room, closing and locking the door behind her.

I went back in my room and turned the TV back on, but I didn’t feel like watching Animal Planet anymore. I turned the TV back off and focused my attention on the rest of my bottle of scotch.

26 June, 2009

The Barstool at the Edge of the World

I went to the bar the following day. It was Suzy’s day off and there was some other chick behind the bar. It was still a little slow: only a few of the usual cast, two members of the brain trust, and one or two stragglers who had nowhere else to be. I’d never seen the new bartender before, so she didn’t know what I drank. She approached, smiled, asked what I wanted. I ordered a draft beer and a whiskey shot. She brought my order and paused for a second. Then she leaned forward a little, smiled, did a lift a squeeze so I’d notice the cleavage popping out of her tank top with the bar’s name splashed across her left boob.

“You wanna see a menu?”

Is it under that tank top? “No,” I answered.

Her smile shrank along with her cleavage. Then she wandered off to go smoke a cigarette on the patio – without making sure that everybody else had a full glass.

I looked up and saw Rico and Bob, the two members of the brain trust who were there, watching me. Rico was a retired steel worker and Bob, as far as I could tell, didn’t do anything. They, along with the two other members of the brain trust Sal and Mac the Elder, hung around, played the horses, and drank the usual mixed drinks. Rico preferred gin and tonic. Bob liked whiskey sours.

“Nice girl, huh?” Rico asked me.

I shrugged. “She new?”

Bob nodded. “Yup. She started yesterday.”

Rico concurred. “Yesterday.”

“She’s ok,” I said.

“Pretty,” Rico said.

“Very pretty,” Bob echoed.

“I guess so,” I said.

Rico squinted at me. “What’s wrong with you? You queer or something?”

“Yeah,” Bob chimed in. “You queer or something?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s good,” Bob said.

“Yeah,” Rico echoed. “That’s good.”

They were going to keep talking about how glad they were I’m straight, but they were interrupted by the start of the third race at Evangeline. Finally, I thought. I didn’t mind the new bartender particularly. She was a decent piece of eye candy – the kind that Adelle usually hired – but I was in no mood. Suzy not being there disturbed my sense of normalcy; and after Ruby’s visit, I was desperate for consistency. Or what passed for it. Of course, if I had bothered to pay attention, I would have known that it was Suzy’s day off; but I wasn’t willing to admit that my sister might have been right about needing to look at a calander.

Ruby’s visit was as nice as I could expect. It was short. Much longer and we would’ve had nothing to say to one another, and then all the old arguments would have started again.

When I’ve heard people talk about how close they are to their family and how they couldn’t imagine not being around them, I feel a mixture of disbelief and envy. Don’t get me wrong; I do love my family, in as much as I’m able to love any group of people I’m bound to by the accident of birth. I guess I never felt like I had much in common with them, besides the familial liver – and that only goes so far. Most drinkers don’t particularly enjoy the company of other drinkers; they’re just part of the package unless you decide to stay home and drink alone. But then your life starts to look like a Prohibition Era public service announcement. I remember watching those goofy made for TV holiday movies – where, despite the drama, the disagreement, and the personality clashes, everyone was laughing and smiling under the light of a too too pretty Christmas tree by the time the credits rolled. The dads always wore comfy sweaters and the mothers always baked cookies in uncomfortable looking high heels. All the problems were cute. All the kids were basically good at heart – even that odd rebel who walked around with long hair/pierced ears/tattoos/bad taste in music. There was always the wise grandparent who understood that the kid was just going through a phase and would eventually ditch the extreme clothes and teenage slang for an acceptable and gender appropriate alternative.

By the time the bartender came back from her smoke break, I was empty.

“You want another?” she asked.

“Just whiskey,” I said. “On the rocks.”

She brought me my drink. No lift and squeeze this time. Instead, she focused her attention on Mac the Younger, who had just shown up. He took his place on the peripheral of the brain trust and began his usual binge and purge approach to drinking and gambling.

I was still trying to wrap my head around my sister’s visit. Unless I was missing something, she almost seemed concerned about me. Maybe it was all that twelve step AA bullshit; but I wasn’t sure which odder: that my sister was being (as best she could) concerned, or that she was a recovering alkie. I guess it made sense. I never saw her drink more than few sips of wine at Thanksgiving; but then again, I never really saw her. Ex-drinkers are a lot like ex-smokers in that they start to see themselves as a crusader. They got themselves saved, so they become zealots, needing to go save other people. Whether they wanted salvation or not. Clearly her (and by proxy, the family’s) general consensus was that I was a lousy drunk who needed saving. That didn’t surprise me, particularly. I heard that song before I left home.

But I knew their motives. Their concern had less to do with me and more with the shame I was theoretically bringing down on the family. Appearances were important to them. To Ruby in particular. Her entire life was an exercise in carefully managing the appropriate public image. Not to smart, not too dumb. Marry appropriately. Live in the right neighborhood. Have the right number of kids. Dress correctly. Act correctly. Like the appropriate things. Just watching her was exhausting, and that was in spite of the fact that I hardly ever saw her. If there were things to be said, any deep dark secrets, they were never discussed. Ruby liked her little bubble undisturbed, just like mom liked hers. It was hard to tell what the reaction to Ruby’s AA lifestyle was. And I didn’t particularly want to find out, either. Go home? For what? To what? So I could get back on at the soap warehouse? So they could count how many beers I drank a day? What was the point? What did they know about my life?

A few minutes later, Adelle came out of the back office. Chivas Joe wasn’t with her. She sat at her usual corner spot and the new bartender had her drink ready before she sat down. “Thanks, sweetie,” Adelle squeaked and immediately sucked down half the glass.

The afternoon crowd was starting to trickle in. The other two members of the brain trust, Sammy and Ted, showed up. Sammy was a retired postal worker and Ted used to be in sales. They took their seats and started talking to Rico and Bob about the races. The bartender made their drinks, went around making sure everyone had a full glass, then went and talked to Adelle.
Rico and Bob hobbled off to make their bets, and Mac the Younger sat and looking over a borrowed racing program and chatting it up with Sammy and Ted. All gamblers have a system. Rico liked horses with long tails. Bob preferred grays and speckled mares. Mac’s system was more mathematical; he figured if he threw enough money in, he’d make it back eventually. If he hadn’t been born with the bug, Mac the Younger could’ve been a financial wizard. He knew the names of all the high winning jockeys at all the tracks he bet on. He knew the horses, the owners, the trainers. He read through the racing program like it was the Wall Street Journal.

I’d never seen him win, though. And Mac the Elder usually ended up bailing him out when he got in too deep. It’s easier to lose when you know there’s always a back up.

23 June, 2009

Visitations, Ruminations, and a Quick Polka

I went to pay another week on my room and the little foreign guy behind the desk told me I had a message.

“A message? What do you mean I have a message?” I couldn’t think of anybody who would even THINK of leaving a message. Who does that? I didn’t owe anybody; and anybody I would’ve owed money to certainly would not have left a message.

“Yees sir,” the little guy nodded. He was easier to deal with than the chunky bitch he split desk duty with. And he was even mildly friendly – as long as you could pay him. I saw him rip into a tenant once because he was trying to work out a deal. The guy had enough money to pay for three nights, and he said he just needed a little more time to come up with the rest. The problem was, he only had enough money for three days at the weekly rate, and he was trying to play off of the desk clerk’s sympathy. He used all the cards. Unemployment. Alimony. Child Support. A sick mother in need of a kidney transplant. I had to hand it to the guy; he knew better than to try and go up against the bitch. She would have had him out on his ass three seconds after the words left his mouth. The little foreign dude – who told everyone to call him Dave – stood and listened. And the more the guy talked, the less Dave smiled. And when the tenant was finished, Dave laid into him with a litany of English curse words and insults mixed with some other language that only made Dave sound like he was putting a voodoo curse on the poor bastard. By the time Dave was finished, the guy put down the cash he had – which only gave him another night at the regular rate – and slunk away like a beaten dog.

Dave liked me because I paid on time and I paid in cash. He didn’t like credit cards because the motel still used one of those carbon copy receipt machine and it usually took a month or so to find out whether the card was still good. But I paid in cash and I didn’t make trouble. I put money down for another week, and he gave me a hand written receipt, along with a piece of paper with a name and a phone number written on it.

It was the number to another hotel. My sister Ruby was in town.

Yeah, I thought. She would leave a message. That was just her style. Ruby traveled a lot because of her job. She’d gone to college, dropped out, started working as a secretary and worked her way up over the years and after countless night and online classes to the mid-executive level of a fairly successful educational software company. Her husband was a thoroughly devoted school teacher at a small private high school, and their kids were prodigies in waiting who attended private schools that would, in Ruby’s words, “draw out their talents and expand their possibilities.” She talked like that a lot. Sometimes I got the sense she borrowed heavily from infomercials and pamphlets she found in the various hotels she stayed in when she traveled.

I thought about not calling her. Don’t get me wrong; I love my older sister. But we never had much in common. She was a full ten years older than me. She was out of the house and on her own before I turned nine. I saw her on holidays, and sometimes on my birthdays. The last conversation she and I had was about a job I’d quit in a soap warehouse that our uncle had gotten for me. She did most of the talking. She called me spoiled and lazy. She said I was a leech. She told me she wished mom would just kick me out of the house. Then she said that I was making mom’s life harder than it needed to be and if I loved her at all, I’d get a job and get out. I left home not long after that.

Against my better judgment, I decided to go ahead and call her. I didn’t want to take the chance that she’d actually come looking for me; not that I thought she would. But there was always the chance, and I didn’t want to hear her bitch about how I lived. I called hoping she would be out. No such luck. When the phone in her room rang she picked up on the second ring.


“Hey sis,” I said. “How are things?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d call,” she answered. “I thought I was going to have to come and find you.”

“I figured you’d be too busy for that,” I answered. “Besides, why wouldn’t I want to talk to my sister?”

She snorted. “Yeah, well. So, how have you been?”

“Peachy. You know. Living the life.”

“Which life is that?”


She snorted again, and I thought I could hear her rolling her eyes. “I see. Are you going to be free for dinner in the next couple of days?” she asked. “Or does living the life take up most of your time?”

Sigh. My head was started to hurt. “I can be free. How long are you in town?”

“Until Wednesday,” she said.

“Ok.” Shit. “What day is it?”

Ruby sighed audibly. “It’s MONDAY, kid. Geez. Don’t you look at a calander?”

“How about tomorrow night?” I asked.

“Fine,” she answered. “Where do you want to meet?”

“I’ll meet you there,” I said.

“That works,” she said. “How about six o’clock?”

“Smashing,” I said. “Just smashing. You’ll know me by the red carnation in my lapel.”

“Whatever,” she said. “I’ll see you then.”

After she hung up I went up to my room and debated the wisdom of my decision. Clearly Ruby was in town on business and seeing me was a convenient afterthought. I hadn’t seen anybody in family since I left home. It wasn’t that I was trying to hide, exactly. I always made sure they had some idea where I was. But there wasn’t a lot to say. If something was wrong at home, Ruby wouldn’t have waited until the next night to see me; she would’ve told me over the phone.

I took the bus to her hotel. Naturally she was close to the airport, staying at the Marriot and it took me three connections to get there. The Marriot isn’t the swankiest hotel chain around; but it’s one of those places where the people behind the reservation desk smile and greet you when you walk through the door. It’s a little unnerving, actually. They’re all bleached smiles and coordinated outfits with ugly blazers. I nodded at them and made my way through the lobby to the bar. All shiny hardwood and brass fixture. All the beers on tap were imports. The bottles of liquor shined like a dozen stars. I ordered bourbon over ice and told the bartender to put it on Ruby’s room. The flat screen TV above the bar was turned to Fox News. Bill O’Reilly was ranting and trying to stir up the national xenophobia that had made him rich. You watch guys like him long enough and the words start to run together; then all that’s left is a big clown head making hissing noises and with veins popping out of their enflamed foreheads. They’re like bad Macy’s Day Parade balloons that never seemed to float away.

“I hope you’re not putting a lot of those on my tab,” she said coming up behind me. “I’m on the corporate account.”

I turned to face to her. She had changed very little since the last time I saw her. The only evidence that she had aged at all was the tired look in her eyes.

“It’s nice to see you, too, sis,” I answered.

“You’re not drunk are you?”

I downed my drink. “Nope,” I said. “Only had one.”

“Just now or today?”

Some things never change. “Did you call me just to give me shit?” I asked. “I can get that other places that don’t require three bus transfers.”

She sighed and gave me a hug. I hugged her back. It felt a little odd, since I couldn’t remember her ever hugging me before. Not even when I was a kid. “It’s good to see you little bother,” she lied. “Where do you want to go? My treat.”

“Your treat, you choose.”

We left took the elevator to the garage and she drove us to a nearby steak house. While we were waiting to get be seated, she updated me on her husband and kids. Darrin, the hubby, was now a principal and looking to move into a superintendent’s position. Her daughter was in junior high and the boy was turning into a little league star. She’d just been promoted again after her company was bought out by a larger competitor. Darrin had a brief health scare, but he was taking better care of himself.

“How’s mom?” I asked after we finally got seated and ordered our drinks. Ruby drank iced tea. I ordered a beer.

“She’s fine,” Ruby answered. “Same as always. The kids love her, though.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah. It makes things easier. She misses you. Talks about you all the time.”

“That’s gotta get boring,” I said. “There’s not that much to talk about.”

“Is that why you never call?”

“I call,” I shot back, “when I have something to say.” So that’s it, I thought. She called just to try and guilt trip me. I’m not sure why I was surprised. Or why it bothered me. I should have anticipated it.

“She was in the hospital a few months back,” Ruby said.

“Was it serious?”

“No,” she said. “But it could’ve been.”

“What was it?”

“Her back. She had to have surgery on her back.”

“Did she want me there?”

“She might have liked to see you, yeah,” Ruby answered. She was about to say something else when the waitress came back with our drinks and asked if we were ready to order. Ruby ordered a grilled chicken taco salad. I ordered a steak dinner. If I was stuck listening to her tell me what horrible son and terrible human being I was, I figured I might as well eat something good so the trip wasn’t a total waste. Besides, I couldn’t remember the last time I had a steak. After the waitress left, I downed half the glass of beer and waited for Ruby to continue the onslaught. Some things never change, and people rarely do. The only thing I could figure was that she was bored with bullying her husband and controlling the lives of her children, so she decided to look me up. Catch up on all the verbal abuse I was missing.

“She’s fine,” Ruby said. “In case you’re wondering.”

“Good,” I said.

“But you should call her.”

“I will.”

The waitress stopped by and asked if I wanted another beer. I said yes. Ruby didn’t say anything, but she shook her head.

“How much are you drinking these days?” she asked.

“How much are you drinking?”

“I’ve been sober for three years,” she said.

“Congratulations,” I said. I never even knew she drank. Not that we would’ve bonded even then. Drinking in our family was less of a social building block and more a fact of existence. I remember going to family reunions as a kid and noticing that three of the four coolers were filled with beer. When I was seven I snuck my first taste from an older cousin’s can of Schlitz. When my grandfather died, his one remaining brother showed up to the funeral hammered. “So how much are you drinking?”

“I don’t really keep track,” I said. “That might distract me from all the important ass scratching and nose picking.”

She made a face. “Don’t be gross.”

“Not to mention my extensive navel lint collection.”

“Now you’re being an ass.”

“And you’re not? Listen, I know we don’t talk much, but that doesn’t give you the right to ride my ass. Okay?”

Ruby waved her hands in defeat. “Fine,” she sighed. For a couple of seconds she couldn’t think of anything to say. I suspected that she was going through the list in her head, trying to find something civil to talk about. I decided to through her a bone.

“So it sounds like work is going well, then.”

She shrugged. “It goes ok. We’re expanding. The recession means that state universities are losing funding and have to find ways to streamline.”

“And you’re there to fill the gap,” I said. “Good for you.”

“Have you thought about going back?”

She couldn’t last more than two minutes. “Go back where?”

“To college. To school.”

“I don’t belong there.”

“You didn’t. But maybe you do now.”

I shook my head. “I don’t have the patience for all the bullshit.”

“It’s hard work,” she said. “But it’s worth it. Sometimes I wish I’d gone straight into college instead of getting a job. Things might have been easier.”

“You’re doing pretty well for yourself.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But what about you?”

I didn’t feel like talking about me. I’d heard all of this before. Growing up, I was told from the age of five that I was going to go to college. I was tracked into college prep classes in high school when my friends were taking shop and art. I learned the art of regurgitation, thinking that once I got to college, I’d be able to think my own thoughts. But when I got to college, it was the same thing. They talk. I tell them what they just told me. There are cheaper ways to find that kind of bullshit in the world.

“So if Darrin gets this superintendent gig, does that mean you’re going to have to move?”

She shook her head. “No. It wouldn’t be good for the kids to change school districts. Besides, now is a bad time to try and sell a house. But it’ll be a short commute for him.”


We forced our way through more chit chat until the food came. She talked about dance lessons. Apparently she and Darrin were taking dance lessons: ball room, line dancing, whatever. Before her business trip, they had taken a class on the polka.

“The polka?” I asked. “Why the polka?”

“Darrin’s family is German.”

“I thought he was from Illinois.”

Then she told me not to be an ass. I ordered another beer. We didn’t talk much through dinner – the whole eating while talking thing was never big in our family. The streak was thin and a little on the tough side, and the steamed vegetables were mushy; but it was a square meal and I was grateful for it. Besides, you can put enough ketchup and hot sauce on anything to make it edible. Eating dinner with Ruby made me think of family gatherings. We used to get together for Thanksgiving. The entire family, including second and third cousins and those long lost grand-aunts who send you birthday cards with a quarter taped to the inside of the card. They were always loud, talkative occasions. I usually got stuck at the kid’s table with all the cousins and I never knew what to say to them. As I got older, I just ate until I was full and then found a chair to fall asleep in. By the time I was old enough to refuse to go, the big family Thanksgivings had disappeared, along with all the grand aunts and uncles and numerous cousins who all seemed to know one another better than I knew them or they knew me.

When we finished, she offered to drive me back to the Lost Dutchman. I wasn’t sure I wanted her to see where I lived; not because I was ashamed but because I knew it would just give her more excuses to be critical.

But I didn’t feel like dealing with three bus transfers, either. So I decided to let her and just deal with whatever shit she pulled.

The chit chat in the car was even more forced; there was not a whole lot left to talk about. She asked if I was working, and I lied and said I was. I told her about the last warehouse gig I’d been on so that when she reported back home she’d have something to tell everybody. It wasn’t that I thought anybody was really worried about me; it was more like they were worried that they might have to lie for me and cover their shame. It wasn’t that I didn’t think they loved me. Loving someone and liking somebody are two different things, and so was feeling a sense of pride. People were generally proud of Ruby because she was smart and because she had earned everything she had the hard way. And I guess she deserved it. But she and I were just different, and it didn’t take anybody long to notice that. If someone did know who we were, they didn’t realize we were related until they were told.

As we pulled into the parking lot at the Lost Dutchman, I prepared myself for the attack. Surely she’d have to say something; she couldn’t help herself.

“Listen,” she said as she pulled the car into a parking spot and put it in park. “Have you thought about coming home?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” she turned to face me, “come home. You’re struggling out here, obviously. Mom wants you to come home. Out here you’re all alone, and if something were to happen…”

“I’m fine,” I said on the defense. “I know it’s not the pretty suburban life, but it’s MY life.”

She shook her head. “Listen,” she said, “I didn’t mean to sound critical. It’s just… mom is worried about you. And I know you don’t want to go back and live with her. But you could stay with us if you wanted to. Until you got on your feet. We just converted a room in the basement that you could use. It would be temporary.”

I shook my head. “There’s nothing there for me, Ruby.”

“What do you mean? What about your family?”

“Do you honestly want me living in your basement? Does Darrin? I’m not… comfortable in the same kinds of places you are, Ruby. It’s not me.”

She gestured out the window towards the motel. “And THIS is?”

“Maybe,” I said. “It’s not perfect. It’s not pretty. But it’s honest.”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to.”

She sighed. “Listen, just THINK about it, okay? And if you don’t have the money to get home, don’t worry about it. I’ll loan it to you. Okay? Just say you’ll think about it.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, not really intending to. “What time does your flight leave?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

I started to get out. “Safe travels, sis. Tell anybody who cares that I said hi.”

“I will.” She gave me another uncomfortable hug and I got out of the car. I got out, closed the door, and lit a cigarette. I waited until she pulled out of the parking to walk up the stairs. Loyce was sitting out in front of her room smoking a black and mild. She smiled at me.

“Hi honey.”

“Hi Loyce.”

“She looked nice,” Loyce said with a smile and a wink.

“My sister,” I said. “She’s in town on business.”

“Oh.” Loyce nodded. “She didn’t want to come up and see the grand palace?” She laughed.

“I thought it might be too much for her,” I said, taking a drag off my cigarette. “You know. I wouldn’t want to shock her sensibilities.”

Loyce looked at me cock-eyed. “You talk funny sometimes,” she said.

“I know.”

“You go to college?”

“Not very long.”

“You should,” she said. “You’re smart.”

“Uh-huh.” I dropped the used cigarette but, stepped on it, and turned to open my door. “Take it easy.”

“Ain’t no other way,” she said, and chuckled.

19 June, 2009

Chivas Joe: A Necrophiliac Love Story

Are you just out thinking about something?”

I looked over. Joe and I didn’t usually talk much. He tended to drink with Adelle and the crowd of cool kids – though we’d occasionally talk when one or both of us were drunk enough to forget that we weren’t really friends.

“Nah,” I answered. “Just sort of relaxing.”

“Uh-huh.” He must’ve noticed the way I was knocking back my cocktails. I wasn’t so much relaxing as I was avoiding the sunlight. I was also celebrating my first full year of living in the vacuum of the southwest. It’s one of those places were people go and never manage to leave; it’s not so much about planning as it is a magnetic inevitability. In a place with no memory, like Phoenix is, it’s very easy to lose track. Of your reasons for being there. Of your reasons for wanting to leave. After a while, reasons get demolished and built over the way everything else does here, and what you’re left with an antiseptic reality in which life repeats every square mile or so. Strip mall, gated condominium community, Jack-in-the-Box, a gas station. Stop at the light. Go. Repeat.

And whether I’m ruminating or in the process of trying NOT to ruminate, whiskey has pretty much always been my liquor of choice – for as long as I’ve been drinking more than contraband beer and the wine coolers that contributed to more than one teen pregnancy in my hometown. It’s still my preference, even in unbearable climates. There’s something fundamentally warm about whiskey. Something pure and purifying. Something basic. It goes well as a shot with beer or as an additive to coffee. It also does just fine on it’s own over ice. Whiskey – or bourbon as it is sometimes referred to by those who know nothing about history – is a pure Americana. What we think of as whiskey – or bourbon – was born out of the downfall of Prohibition is one of the few things that Kentucky in known for besides tobacco, coal mines, fried chicken, and accusations of inbreeding. People tend to forget, though, that long before The U.S. was a country peopled by patriots, it was a territory built up by lovers of whiskey. Before he was President, George Washington was a distiller – and when he imposed a tax on whiskey (that more or less cut out his less affluent competition) a minor insurrection resulted that is sometimes referred to as The Whiskey Rebellion. That goes to show that even at the founding of the country, people in power were always trying to get one over on the rest of us.

I looked over at Joe; he was sipping a bottle of NA beer. “What’s going on?” I asked. “You on the wagon?”

“Well,” he hedged, “I’m just taking a break. It’s good sometimes to stop –“


“I, uh, like to make sure that I’m controlling It instead of It controlling me.”

“Sure,” I said. “Makes sense. It’s good to clean out every once in a while. Let your liver rebuild itself.”

He nodded. I drained my glass. The last time I took a break was the last time I couldn’t afford a drink. It was miserable. People who talk about sobriety like it’s something to aspire to clearly aren’t paying attention to the world.

We sat not talking for another half hour or so. Then Adelle came out of the back and sat down next to Joe. She ordered one of her usual froo-froo drink and proceeded to talk Joe’s ear off. She talked non-stop. She didn’t even stop to breathe. She complained about her ex-boyfriend and business partner; she whined about how the distributors were fucking her over and how the pool repairman tried to make a pass at her; she bitched about one or two of the waitresses; she complained that her drink was too weak. She harped on about how she should’ve never gotten stuck as co-owner of a bar to begin with. “This place is bleeding,” she said. “We spend more than we make. And that’s after we let a couple of girls go.” She went on and on about how her talents were wasting away. She should be an events coordinator. She had wanted to open a venue for local bands, but her ex didn’t think it was a good idea. When she ran out of work related things to jabber on about, she started complaining about the new shoes she’d just bought, and how sore her legs were and how doing the books made her head hurt.

For a second I felt sorry for the guy; but then I remembered that he asked for it. I know it’s difficult to turn down pussy, especially when it’s been thrown at you along with free booze and a cafeteria choice of drugs – but that doesn’t mean you have to stick around for it. For a while.

Joe’s eyes were glazed over. He’d nod occasionally like it was an automatic response. After her second drink, Adelle finally noticed what Joe was drinking. She wrinkled her nose.

“Why are you drinking THAT?”

Joe shrugged. “Taking a break,” he said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” she whined through her nose. “Why?”

He shrugged and side glanced in my direction.

“Oh,” she slapped his arm. “You’re not thinking about what that DOCTOR said, are you?”

Joe didn’t answer.

“You can’t let people scare you like that, baby,” she cooed. “You just need to change up. All you do is sit here and drink Chivas Regal. I told you that shit wasn’t good for you.”

He shrugged.

“It’s his fucking JOB to scare you, babe. Tell me you didn’t fall for it.”

Joe didn’t answer.

Adelle motioned Suzy over. “Hey,” she said, “Did Joe tell you about his doctor appointment?”

When Suzy waddled over, she shook her head and said no.

“Well, this doctor – this stupid quack who probably gets kickbacks from some drug company – told him he needed to quit drinking. Can you believe that? They wanna make anything fun illegal.”

Suzy didn’t really answer. Joe wasn’t saying anything either. “I mean come on,” Adelle carried on, rubbing up on him. “You’re as healthy as a fucking horse, Joe. A FUCKING horse. Believe me,” Adelle smiled a dirty smile that made my stomach turn just a little, “I should know.”

Suzy waddled off to serve another patron and Adelle kept rubbing on Joe and talking. “You’d KNOW if something was wrong,” she said. “Letting some dumb quack scare you. OOO,” she laughed. “You’ll be dead in a year. Right. What the fuck ever.” She kissed Joe’s cheek. “Let me make you a drink, okay hon? Come on.”

Joe didn’t answer. Then he sighed and nodded his head. Adelle patted him on the shoulder then stood up and walked behind the bar to make Joe’s magic drink. When she came back with it, Joe took one look at it and drank it down. That made Adelle cackle and she jumped up to put money in the juke box.

I motioned to Suzy for another cocktail and when she brought it over I asked her how business was.

She shrugged and tried to look non-committal. “It gets slow sometimes,” she said. “But it’s also summer. We’ll pick up again when football season starts.”

“Sure,” I said. It’s true that summers can be slow for sports bars – but they also had the off track betting, and if I had learned one thing over the years and numerous barstools, it was that even in a recession, people want to drink. Hell, in a recession, people want to drink more so they don’t have to think about all the shit that’s going wrong in their lives. The smart bar owners may have to adapt a bit to stay afloat; but that sure as shit wasn’t Adelle. And it was very clear that she was one who made most of the decisions at the MTP.

“How about a draft?” I asked.

“Uh, which one?”

I told her my preference.

“We’re out,” she said.

“Out? How can you be out?”

Suzy was still trying to be non-committal. She glanced over at Adelle, who was doing everything except openly dry humping Joe. Suzy had a look on her face that I’d seen before; it’s that look stage actors get when they realize they’ve forgotten a line. “It’s the distributor’s fault,” she said, a little quickly. Like she suddenly remembered the script. “They changed delivery days on us and it’s thrown everything off. I can get you something else, though, or maybe a bottle?”

I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll just pay out and drink this.” I set enough money on the counter to cover my tab and a small tip. Then I downed the drink I had and stood up to leave. I looked over at Joe and Adelle; she was whispering something in his ear. He was smiling. Then he caught me watching and his face went dead, expressionless like a fish. When I left the bar, the only thing I heard over the thumping of the club music Adelle was playing was the sound of her laughter.

17 June, 2009

Tumbleweeds and Killer Robots

The stop over in Santa Fe was a long one – four hours. We were switching busses, and it took that long to empty out the bus, unload the baggage, then hose out the old bus and wait on the new bus, which would have to be cleaned and refueled before we could board. The wait was not so much an exercise in will power as it was in futility. I was exhausted from crossing two time zones, sore from sleeping in a more or less upright position, and I felt disgusting because I hadn’t shaved or showered since I left Cincinnati. Traveling cross country by bus means seeing humanity (or the absence of it) up close and personal. All of people’s bad habits – the nail biting, nose picking, ass scratching, snoring, and sniveling tendencies sweat out of their pores and soak into the seats and thicken the air. Eventually, everything is infected with it. There’s no escaping.

First thing when I got off the bus I made a bee line for the restroom to take a massive shit. I’d been holding it in for miles, trying to avoid using the toilet on the bus. Those things are worse than port-o-potties at a summer music festival. The fan never works so the stench of people’s bowels is always encased in the coffin sized closet and smacks you in the face when you open the door. And, more often than not, the person who used it before you was some sweaty fucker suffering from explosive diarrhea or motion sickness – or it was some cunt who tried unsuccessfully to flush a used tampon. Better to hold it in as long as you can and hope for a long enough pit stop.

I finished up and splashed water on my face after I washed my hands. The water was lukewarm and tasted like old minerals. On either side of me there were guys shaving and trying to clean themselves up. I was a little envious, since I had made the mistake of packing my razor and toothbrush in my suitcase, which was going to be moved from the bus I just left onto the bus I would ride all the way to Phoenix. What a rookie mistake, I kicked myself. I should’ve known better. I thought about going to the store in the depot and buying a disposable razor and at least give myself the appearance of not being a bum. But I didn’t want to spend money on something I knew I owned. I could shave once I got to where I was going, right? Besides, the water did help a little.

It was early morning in Santa Fe. My stomach was empty because I hadn’t had anything to east since somewhere in Wyoming, where I broke down and bought a pack of stale cheese and crackers. But again, I knew exactly how much cash I had and it had to last me for a while. So instead I bought myself a cup of coffee that was colored water more or less, and wandered around the depot trying to eat up the time until it was time to board.

The depot, like the Santa Fe skyline, was antiseptic and brown. Lots of stucco and tile, indicative of the southwestern style. Mexican blankets hung on the walks and over archways. Large prints painted to look like rural art depicting cowboys on horseback surrounded by rocks, tumbleweeds, and cactus; sometimes they were herding cattle and sometimes they were fighting Indians or bandits wearing sombreros. Framed black and white photos of Santa Fe through the years. A picture of Pancho Villa and an even nicer picture of his grave. A copy of New Mexico’s statehood decree. A copy of the treaty that made New Mexico (and Texas) U.S. territories. Kiosks filled with colorful pamphlets to entice the weary tourist into spending money visiting western museums and the “contemporary gallerias and shopping centres.”

The four hours stretched and stretched until finally the bus was ready to board. Before we could get on the bus, though, the passengers had to pass through a check point and have our carry on bags x-rayed. I guess in addition to the graves of bandits, stucco, and the thoroughly modern shopping, Santa Fe was also home to a military base. I wondered if it was some Area 51 deal where the government was making sure extraterrestrials weren’t slipping through the net. I hadn’t seen any check points at any other depot I’d ever been to; but I wasn’t all that worried. It was just one more stupid thing to get through.

When it got to be my turn, I handed the first soldier my boarding pass and driver’s license. He glanced down at it. Then up at me. Then he handed it back. “Place your bag on the conveyor belt.” His tone was emotionless. Almost metallic. I put my satchel on the conveyor belt and the soldier – who happened to be a young woman with a fairly attractive face despite the uniform – pushed it into the x-ray machine. The guard who had looked at my boarding pass motioned me forward. What, I thought, you’re not gonna check my shoes for a bomb? It wasn’t as bad as the airport; the last time I flew I was in line for almost an hour and I nearly missed my flight. I figured this would be pretty easy. Plus, it was working to my advantage. There was only one line, and I was near the front of it. That meant I had a better shot at getting a decent seat. The really good ones would be taken already by the people who had come in on that particular bus; but generally, the busses emptied out at major depots. All I had to do was confirm that I was not, in fact, from another planet, get through the security checkpoint, and board. I wasn’t all that anxious to sit down for another day; but I was looking forward to the end of the trip.

“Sir,” another guard spoke to me, “could you step over here?” My heart sank a little. There wasn’t really a question in his face. When I stepped to the side, they started letting other passengers through. My bag was sitting on the table. It was open. The soldier who pulled me out of line pointed down and asked, “Is this flask yours, sir?”

Fuck. “Uh, yeah. It’s mine.” The flask had been a gift from this girl I used to be friends with. We didn’t have much in common except that we both liked to drink and both hated pretty much everybody else. She was gorgeous, intelligent, and well-read, with fire red hair and a temperament to match; that meant she was completely out of my league. She ended up getting hooked in with a traveling anti-war protest group. She left town and I lost touch with her. The flask, she had told me, was so I would never forget her.

“You are AWARE, aren’t you sir, that alcoholic beverages aren’t allowed on the busses?”

I thought I heard a sneer in his tone; but his face was deadpan and his eyes were colorless. He didn’t even have laugh lines. Of course I knew that. But it wasn’t like I was stinking drunk and being obnoxious. They’d kicked a guy off in the middle of Kansas for it; he was clearly drunk, on his way home from Vegas where he clearly didn’t do well, and he was yelling at people and swinging and empty bottle of vodka around. There are few things more annoying than a Midwesterner on a binge, and everybody hated him. I just wanted him to shut up so I could sleep. The bus driver told him three or four times to sit down and shut up, and when the guy didn’t, the bus driver pulled over, opened the door, and physically tossed the guy off. Most of the passengers applauded. Thing is, he left the poor drunk bastard in the middle of fucking nowhere. There were miles of corn field on either side of the road and not even a house in sight to walk to and use the phone.

But I wasn’t that guy. I wasn’t making trouble. I wasn’t bothering anybody. I’d been taking sips to help me sleep and stave off the full impact of my hangover. Passengers walked by me and looked me over on their way to occupy what remained of the decent seats. I looked at the guard. Nothing. Not a shred of humanity in his demeanor. I suspected that there was something about the uniform that drained the person wearing it of the fundamental human emotions – empathy, sympathy, compassion. Granted, they were more trouble than they were worth most of the time; but at that point, I could’ve used one or all three of them.

I smiled my most apologetic looking smile. “Listen,” I said, “it was a going away present. I haven’t even cracked it open yet. I would’ve packed it in my suitcase, but I didn’t want something to happen and end up with it all over my clothes.” I looked sorry and shrugged.

He pulled it out of the bag. “You can’t take it with you,” he said. “Actually, we could detain you just for getting it this far.”

“But I bought my ticket,” I said. “I’m going to Phoenix.”

The guard shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. We can keep anybody off if they break policy or look like they’re going to be a problem.”

A problem? I wasn’t being a problem. I hadn’t been a problem. “I HAVE to get to Phoenix,” I reasoned with him. “People are waiting on me.”

“Why are you going to Phoenix?” the guard asked. A few more people trickled past. The line was getting shorter and shorter.

“A job.”

The guard handed the flask to the girl working the x-ray machine and she put it in some box under the table. For a split second I thought I detected a slight light of amusement in his colorless eyes.

“Come on,” I said. “It was a gift.”

The guard didn’t answer; he just watched as the last of the passengers walked by. The line was gone.

There was no way I was going to win. I picked up my shuffled through bag and looked at him. He nodded his consent like he was doing me a favor and I headed out the door. By the time I boarded the bus, the only empty seats were the two seats in the very back, directly in front of the pisser. I made my way back, tossed my bag into the overhead compartment, and slid into the seat. I closed my eyes, tried not to think about the smell, and hoped that I wouldn’t wake up again until Phoenix.

11 June, 2009

Room #9

Frankie Menendez could get just about anything anybody wanted; but he always tried to steer people to his preferred merchandise, which was crystal meth. He also ran a small trade in spindly, ghoulish meth head girls who let themselves be turned out in exchange for a few moments of chemical happiness. But he tried to steer people away from the girls, he said, on general principle. “Besides,” he’d smile and show his half rotten teeth, “there are better things than bubblegum pussy, anyway.”

I bought weed off him twice and smoked with him once. The first time, I didn’t realize Dino could get me better stuff. The second time, he came by my room at a vulnerable moment; I was a little down in the mouth and had just finished my last bottle of cheap wine. And wine always makes me more social than I ought to be. He had all the manners of a door to door salesman – the kind that scared little old ladies into buying expensive vacuum cleaners they didn’t really need by showing them blown up pictures of bed bugs. Except that Frankie smelled like he hadn’t showered in months and had never been taught about simple things like deodorant or a comb.

“Don’t worry,” he joked when I expressed some hesitation. “I’m no illegal and no chiva, either. I bought my papers like every other Mex here.” He smiled wide at his own joke and I could swear he’d managed to lose another tooth. He looked like a damn jack-o-lantern. Except the light was burned out.

I let him in because, like I said, the wine makes me friendlier than I should be. Cheap wine is a nice warm drunk. A philosophical drunk. Most of the old winos I’d known – the ones who really preferred their rock gut vino – were friendly and talkative. They didn’t remember names or the days of the week. Their conscious memory of the world stopped at the day they started drinking. And they weren’t always aware that they repeated themselves most of the time. But were friendly and honest – until the bottle was empty. When Frankie knocked on my door, I was about to go out and get another bottle.

He came in and sat down like we were old friends. “Hey, man,” he said, “you keep a pretty clean room. You sure you’re not a fag?” He smiled again.

I looked around. The bed wasn’t made, and I hadn’t taken out the garbage in a while – it was mostly empty bottles. But I kept my clothes off the floor; even my shoes. There are few things worse than putting your foot in your shoe only to squash a cockroach that had made its way into the toe. Difficult to clean out, too. I smiled and nodded, signaling that I knew he was joking.

“Listen,” he said, “you interested in anything?”

“Got any weed?”

He whistled through the gaps in his teeth. “Shee-i-t, gringo, I always got that.” His eyes widened a little. “How ‘bout I give you a free taste of meth? Come’on, man. It’s on me.”

I shook my head. “Just weed.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Ok, gringo. But you don’t know what you’re missin’ man.”

I thought of the girls I’d seen wandering in and out of his apartment. Some of those girls didn’t look much older than my brother’s kids. “Just weed,” I repeated. My buzz was starting to wear off and so was my patience for Frankie’s company.

“Cool, cool.” Sometimes when Frankie talked, I got the feeling he was trying to imitate characters from movies he’d seen. When he said “cool, cool,” I heard what I thought was a bad attempt at a Jamaican accent – the kind you might hear in a low budget drug comedy. If he says, ‘Ja-makin-me-crazy!’ I’m going to toss his toothless ass out. I bought a little weed from him. Then he insisted on staying and chilling a little. “Gotta get outta my room sometimes, man,” he said. “People always coming by and driving me cra-a-zy. “ Then he smoked a joint with me from the weed I bought.

We finished one joint together and he offered me a taste of “the good stuff” one more time. I turned him down and he left. Before I closed the door on him, though, he said, “If you change your mind, gringo, come on down to number 9. I hook you up.”

Even after I closed the door on him, his stench lingered. I decided to walk up to the liquor store for another bottle.

I tried to avoid him as much as possible after that. We didn’t really talk, but he’d smile and wave every time he saw me or passed me on the stairs. He was always up in Loyce’s room. I suspected that maybe he was her connection and that maybe his knocking on my door was a last minute decision he’d made on his way back from her place. Loyce didn’t strike me as a meth head, though. She wasn’t all sunken and gray and ghoulish like Frankie’s army of underage whores. I think he knocked on my door a couple of times; but I didn’t answer and he finally stopped coming around.

About a month later, the cops showed up. The Sheriff’s Department. There were eight squad cars and a news truck. I was standing out in front of my room smoking a cigarette, and I watched as they pulled the desk manager off her fat ass and made her unlock the door. Frankie never had a chance. The cops knocked in the door, and a few shots were fired. Girls screamed and ran out of the room, only to be caught by the squads of women deputies who covered them with blankets before putting the hand cuffs on them. It didn’t take them long to drag Frankie out. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“They’ll put him away, I think,” Loyce said to me.

“He won’t make bail?”

She chuckled. “Shit. He smokes all the money he makes.”

“He doesn’t have friends?”

She shook her head. “His kind of friends might not take too kindly to him being picked up.” She leaned in. “You know he gets his shit straight from Mexico, right?”

“No,” I said. “I never asked him.”

She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Aw, come on,” she said. “All them Mex’es get their shit from across the border.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s what he gets for not buying American.”

She chuckled. “Look at him,” she said. “He won’t last an hour inside. He’ll either be clawing at the walls or some big fat queer’ll knock the rest of his teeth out and make him a bitch.” She seemed to enjoy the thought a little too much.

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” I said.”

Loyce flicked the ash off her cigarette. “Shit. And them girls. Most of ‘em aren’t old enough to drive, let alone work.”

I couldn’t tell if she was disturbed by the thought of teenage girls giving blowjobs to the dirty old men behind the adult bookstore, or if she was annoyed at the competition; so I nodded kept my eyes on the circus down in the parking lot. More news crews had shown up.

“You know they’re gonna talk to us, right?” she asked.

“Who?” What the hell could I tell a reporter? I’m not weepy, sympathetic, or desperate looking enough to make the evening news.

“The cops,” she answered. Her tone was impatient.

“Figured that.”

“You gotta be careful in what you say,” she cautioned me. “Any little thing and they might close this place down.”

I looked at her. I was getting the feeling that she was less concerned about me or the Lost Dutchman as she was what I’d say to the cops about her. I wanted to tell her that I couldn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know. Hell, it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what happened. After the raid was all over, the plain clothes guys showed up – the Sheriff himself, all dressed up for the cameras and his eleven o’clock cameo, and another plain clothes detective who looked familiar. It was the one I’d seen leaving Loyce’s room a few times. I looked over at her, and she was smiling a satisfied smile.

“They can’t just close the motel, can they?” I asked.

“If they think it’s a crack house they can,” she answered.

“All I can say about Frankie is that he needs new teeth.”

She chuckled and smiled at me. “I like you. You’re kinda cute, you know. In your own way.”

“Good genes and hard living,” I said.

“You don’t look old enough to know what a hard life is,” she said.

“It’s not the age,” I answered, “it’s the mileage.”

She nodded. “True that,” she said. She looked me up and down the way people look at cars or new clothes. “How is it that nice guy like you don’t have a girl?”

I can’t afford them, I wanted to say. I shrugged instead.

Loyce’s attention shifted to the uniforms dispersing and starting to walk up the stairs to the second floor. “Here they come,” she said.


“If you got anything,” she advised, “you might want to go flush it.”

I didn’t, but I nodded and used it as an excuse to go back into my room. A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. It was a uniform. He asked if he could come in. I let him.

“We just have a few questions about Mr. Menendez in number 9,” he said through his mustache. He had a notebook and pen out to take notes, but he was nonchalantly trying to scope out the room. I would’ve felt sorry for the poor rookie bastard, since he was doing all the leg work and getting none of the glory, except for the way he was looking around to find an excuse to bust me. What? I wanted to say. Did you walk in expecting dirty needles and empty crack pipes lying around? Watch a lot of Kojak reruns? Maybe Law and Order? Maybe you thought I just kept a small pile of coke out on the table… just in case I feel the urge. He did take notice of my empties, though, and after he confirmed my name with the list he had from the front office, he asked me what I did for a living.

“I’m currently between jobs,” I said.

“And how long have you been… ‘between jobs’?”

“I work through Ready Labor sometimes,” I said. “But I haven’t in a while.”

“How do you pay your bills, sir?”

“The same way everyone else does. With cash.”

He huffed and shook his head. I took that to mean that the public service announcement was over. “Did you know Mr. Menendez?”

“I knew him when I saw him,” I answered. “How could you miss him with all those missing teeth?”

The rookie smiled a little at that one. “So you didn’t know he was drug dealer?”

“I don’t know what anybody here does,” I said. “For all I know, they’re all on vacation.”

“You think people would come here to stay at a place like this?”

“You think they wouldn’t?”

“Sir,” he was getting impatient. “So you weren’t aware that Francis Gutierrez Menendez sold crystal meth?”

“I didn’t even know his name was Francis,” I said.

“And you weren’t aware of the string of young girls he pimped out? Twelve and thirteen year old girls?”

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to what people do,” I said.

He looked at me like he didn’t want to believe me. “How much do you drink, sir?”

I shrugged. “Only as much as necessary.”

The rookie looked around my room one more time. “Ok,” he said “Thanks for your cooperation.”

He turned and left the room, and I closed the door behind him. Then I locked the deadbolt and chain, and found a three-quarter empty bottle of whiskey and downed the remains. After the cops left, I took a couple of bucks and walked up to the liquor store for some beer. When I got back, the news trucks were still there, all trying to get Frankie’s room in the shot while the legion of all too pretty talking head told the tale of the daring raid. I didn’t watch the news that night.

10 June, 2009

Porn Pretty

I had just drained my third beer when the guy sitting next to me was shaking his head. “I don’t know how he does it.”


He nodded across the bar. “Him.”

There was this gorgeous girl across the bar from us. Cropped dirty blonde hair. Nice curves annunciated by perfectly fitting jeans that fell at her hips left just a bit of a perfectly pear-shaped stomach and a pierced belly button. She filled out her tank top nicely. She moved and talked like someone who was used to be watched; like someone who needed to be watched. She would have been beautful it wasn’t for her face. Hers was the kind of face that was probably pretty once – gorgeous – but had attracted the wrong kind of attention. You see those girls all time – hard bodies with faces like old leather. Too much tanning booth. Too much booze. Too much hard living.

I’d seen her there before. She usually hung out with the good ol’ boys and the waitresses; she could’ve worked there if she kept her hair longer. (The owner, Adelle, had this idea that long hair and ample cleavage equated to more money. It didn’t really bear out, since most of the waitresses were tall on tits but short on brains and usually got the orders wrong; but no one complained, either.) She was sitting on a bar stool laughing and clinging on every word that came out of the mouth of chubby guy everybody called Dino.

They certainly were an odd looking couple, but the set-up was all too familiar. Attractive girl, ugly guy. That’s nearly every porn movie produced since the move to direct to video release. Dino, among other things, was a fairly successful bookie. He also had a decent business trafficking – small stolen items, ripped DVDs, weed, pills, and coke. Most of the time when I saw him, he either one of the three cell phones he carried or he was running out to take care of short errands. His seat was always saved. He talked big and always had a wad of cash. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. He looked like every other fat ugly fucker who walked in the bar. Except for certain times, like Friday and Saturday nights, the bar was mostly a sausage fest – lots of unhappily married or miserably divorced men who came in to drink beer and cultivate a deep and abiding misogyny. Dino was no exception. He looked like the rest of us – like he drank too much beer, exercised too little, and didn’t much give a fuck.

“Maybe he’s really a nice guy down deep,” I said.

My new friend chuckled. “Yeah. I’ve seen him go through four or five different girls.” He took a drink. “And they ALL looked like her. And they all got dumped when he got tired of them.”

“Some women enjoy punishment,” I suggested. “Maybe she thinks she’s going to change him.”

He almost choked on his beer. “Punishment,” he repeated. “Yeah, I guess that’s it.”

He chit chatted some more while I sat and focused on my beer. Mostly he talked about the girl. Poor asshole, I thought. Maybe if he had a thicker wallet. When I emptied the glass, a fresh beer was already laid in its place. Things were busy, but not too busy. The usual mid-week crowd. He went on about Dino, about the girl. I couldn’t tell who he was more intrigued by as he talked. Sometimes he’d stop mid-sentence and just watch the two of them laughing and talking to everybody else. I was surprised that neither one of them said anything to him about. When he finished his beer, my new talkative friend left. Thank Christ, I thought. It’s one thing to notice odd happenings in a public place; it’s another thing entirely when you sit and talk about somebody when they’re within earshot. I was glad he didn’t ask me my name; that way I could act like I didn’t remember him the next time I saw him.

There was a game on the television above the bar – women’s baseball – and I got involved with that for several innings. Sometimes during commercials my eyes would drift over to Dino and his girl. She giggled a lot, picked bites from his hamburger and fries like a little bird, and sucked down long island ice teas. Dino stepped out sometimes to take phone calls, or to smoke a cigarette, and unless she followed him out to smoke, she simply sat and stared into her drink or talked to the bartender until Dino came back. Then Dino came back and she immediately started smiling and laughing and rubbing up on him like somebody flipped a switch on her back or something. Her smile widened when he pulled a long jewelry box out of his pocket and gave it to her. She clapped with glee and hugged him again, pushing herself right up on him. Dino must’ve caught me watching, because he looked me straight in the face, smiled, then reached over and gently squeezed her left tit. She sighed and giggled, then leaned over and whispered something in his ear. One of her hands ran down his leg.

They both finished their drinks quickly and he told her it was time to leave. He called her by name – Izzy. Izzy and Dino, I thought. Dino and Izzy. They stood up and left, holding onto one another. My buddy shook his head, drained his beer, and put cash down on the bar to pay his tab. “That guy,” he said, “gives fat bastards everywhere hope.” A couple of the regulars chuckled in agreement. The fast pitch game was going into overtime and I didn’t want to spend my hard earned forty bucks getting drunk. I finished my beer, paid, and left.

I was back at the bar the next day. I managed to set aside enough money for another week’s rent, and with one more short term goal accomplished, I felt like celebrating. But it was a slow day at the MTP. Nothing worth watching any of the 60 TV screens. Suzy, the pregnant bartender, wasn’t in a good mood. Adele’s nagging and nasal tone carried into the bar from the kitchen, where she was undoubtedly trying to shove another menu change down the cook’s throat. When Dino strutted in, I was almost glad to see him. His presence at the bar provided a sorely needed consistency that the place was lacking. He sat down and the chick behind the bar brought him a drink. He didn’t say much. No one seemed to mind.

A few minutes later, Adele came out of the kitchen. She was wearing the large sunglasses that covered most of her face. She stopped by Dino.

“Hey.” Her tone was sharp. “When are you gonna pay your tab?”

He shrugged. “When are you going to pay YOURS?” He sniffed and rubbed the end of his nose.

Adele shook her head. “Asshole,” she muttered and walked away.

Dino took a substantial gulp from his drink. “Cunt,” he shook his head and chuckled. The bartender didn’t say anything. No one at the bar said anything, either. Adele walked back by on her way back to the office. She didn’t say anything to anyone.

Izzy walked in and sat down on the stool next to his. She looked tired. There were dark circles under her eyes. Suzy brought her a long island iced tea. Dino ignored her because he was watching the baseball game and checking scores on his cellphone every couple of minutes. The Mets were losing. I couldn’t tell if that was what he wanted or not. Izzy tried to get his attention, but he waved her off. Then one of his other phones rang and he stepped outside to answer it, leaving her at the bar with her long island iced tea. She focused on her drink and didn’t talk to anybody, including the bartender, who was filing her nails and ignoring the growing collection of dirty glasses. Before Dino wandered back in, Adele came out of the office and approached the bar. “Suzy,” she spoke to the bartender. “Don’t serve that asshole anymore. Not until he pays up. This isn’t a fucking charity.” She turned and walked back to the office before Dino got back to the bar. He didn’t look very happy. He drained his drink and indicated that he wanted another. She waddled over and told him she wasn’t allowed to serve him anymore.

“What do you mean, you’re ‘not allowed.’? Get me another drink.”

“She said you gotta pay your tab first.”

“What? Are you serious? Are you fucking serious? Are you fucking with me?”

The bartender repeated herself like she was replaying a prerecorded message.

Dino looked over at Izzy, who was just sitting there staring off into space. Then he looked over at me. “What the fuck is YOU staring at, asshole?”

I shrugged and started watching the television above the bar. Dino picked up what was left of Izzy’s drink and drained the glass. Then he looked at here. “We’re going,” he said. Then he looked at Suzy. “Tell her I’ll be back. I’ll be back to settle up.” He leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She shook her head. He took hold of her hand, grinned, and whispered in her ear again. She shook her head again. Then he reached over, caressed her face, taking special care around her lips. Then he whispered in her ear again – this time it was something that made her eyes go out of focus. She didn’t say anything back. Then one of Dino’s phones went off and walked out alone, leaving her there.

Izzy looked around the bar. She noticed me, smiled a sad smile that was too far gone to be sexy. I looked over at the door, and wondered whatever happened to that poor bastard who had been so in love with her. I left some cash on the bar, drained my beer, and left without making any eye contact.

09 June, 2009

Dostoyevsky on the Bus

When I stepped on the bus, it was already a sardine can of afternoon commuters, students, and worn out housekeepers making the long trek from Scottsdale and Paradise Valley to Mesa, Guadalupe, and Apache Junction. There were no seats to be had. If it wasn’t for the fact that the walk was a long one and I was double exhausted from being locked up in that warehouse all day, I probably would’ve gotten off at the next stop and walked the rest of the way. It was so crowded that even the usual attempts people make to not notice the people around them failed; most of the time, people will their heads whatever direction they have to in order to avoid looking at someone else on the bus. Avoiding eye contact is one of the first rules. Eye contact – even brief or accidental – implies a certain intimacy. A private joke. A connection of some sort. It doesn’t take much to go from unintentionally catching someone’s eye to exchanging semi-knowing glances. Better not to look anywhere at all.

But that was impossible; no matter what direct I turned my head, there was always someone to look at. My feet and back hurt from standing on cement all day. I felt the cash in my pocket, but it didn’t feel like enough. I knew that the money I got for my day’s labor was only part of the money the agency got for supplying me. Probably not even half. What bullshit. For the money they pay out for temps, that company could just hire some people full time. I tried not to think about it; after all, it wasn’t as if I wanted a full-time job there.

Whenever I have to demean myself and resort to working, I end up thinking about every job I’ve ever had. My first job lasted two weeks. I was still in high school, and I was determined to be independent. So I applied for the first job I found that required me to drive there. I worked at a car wash – one of those automatic scrub /hand dry and detailing places. I didn’t work more than five days out of the week, from 3:30 until the place closed at 8. The boss was a guy named Ted. Ted was friendly. His shirt was always clean and neatly tucked in. Mostly he sat in his office and did whatever it was that car wash managers did all day.

I only got paid if I was actually working on a car. But there was a significant amount of downtime. That meant if there weren’t any cars to hand dry, vacuum, and detail, we sat in the break room and waited. Most of the guys I worked with were out of work carpenters – the economy was slow for construction in the fall and winter, and since they were non-union labor, there was very little any of them could do. They’d sit in the break room, chain smoke, complain about their wives, their kids, and Ted. And when cars started rolling in, we’d get off our asses. After two weeks I earned $40. When I quit Ted wasn’t surprised. I went to give him my two weeks and he let me off without having to wait them out.

What I learned was that a man’s time is only worth what some overpaid asshole says it is; that’s the only truth about work that matters. I knew a lot of people in college who thought, like I did, if we did what we were supposed to do and jumped through the hoops and get the piece of paper, there’d be a nice job waiting for us. What was waiting, though, was another series of hoops. And when you get through those, there’s another series of hoops. Having a career is just a long series of hoops that you jump; it’s intended to keep you busy so that you don’t notice you’re being underpaid, underappreciated, and dehumanized. And when it’s all done at the end of the day, you end up feeling grateful that there’s someone who’s willing to take advantage of you; you end up looking forward to that time clock, that alarm, that Casual Friday and cocktails with the guys from the office after work. And by the time you’re really done, you’re too old to be able to do anything about the fact that your life was stolen in pursuit of some rich motherfucker’s early retirement.

I’d had a lot of different jobs, and all of them had the same problem. They were all mind-numbing, soul robbing experiences where I was constantly surrounded by people who were too dumb to know they were being scammed. Working a regular job, day in, day out, is just a process of underselling yourself to the better bidder. It never matters how much you know or how good of a job you do. As a matter of fact, the people who are most successful are the ones who stop short of brilliance; whether you’re stacking pallets in a warehouse or filing in an air-conditioned office, being successful has little to do with being considered a good employee. All you have to do is look busy when the boss comes by, and look like you’re accomplishing some part of the task set before you. I read somewhere that some report came out claiming the average office worker only does five hours worth of work in an eight hour day. I bet some big company paid for that study; that way they could justify bullying and underpaying people. Well, I’ve been a janitor and I’ve been a file clerk, and I’ve worked in warehouses and in factories making everything from slipper socks to water purification units for the Army. And it’s all the same shit. The company’s got you by the nuts because they know you’ve got bills, kids, responsibilities. You go in every morning tired. You leave exhausted. You collect your pay and it never quite stretches as far as it needs to. And at the end of the day, you end up on an overcrowded bus with no air conditioning and a driver who hasn’t learned the difference between air brakes and disc brakes.

With every stop, it seemed like more people were getting on than were getting off, and the seats always filled up before I could fight my way to it. My feet were starting to throb inside my shoes. It’s never worth it, I thought. I earn about the same amount of money selling plasma as I do this shit. And at least the plasma center is air-conditioned. I had to remind myself that I couldn’t just sell plasma everyday… and I’d probably need to work another couple of days just to build up enough cash. For what, I didn’t know. That’s another thing about work. It never stops. You work because you have bills to pay and you have bills to pay because you need a place to sleep when you’re not at work.

Sometimes people on the bus listen to music as a way to drown out everyone else. Some people do crossword puzzles or read books. The kind and quality of books vary. Escape seems to be the most important quality people consider in deciding what book to read on the bus. Lots of romance and science fiction. There’s also a lot of religious and self-help reading. Sudoku.

I was busy trying not look around when I noticed somebody else trying not to look around. She was standing by the back door, steadying herself on a pole and staring out the window. Lucky, I thought. She was a cute girl. Dressed like she was on her way home from some office job. Jet black hair that was short cropped and carefully styled not to look styled. Pale porcelain skin. The hint of a tattoo stuck out on the back of her neck, crawling up from her back. Her lips were full and perfect and red. Her eyes were covered with large sunglasses that very nearly covered her entire face. Nice curves in all the right places. Even with people pushing past her to get out the door, she stood like statue and let the crowd of people fall on either side of her like water. I wondered what girl like that thought about, staring out the window.

I tried to not watch her. But I couldn’t help myself. It was as if every other person on the bus was pushed into the background. With every stop and inevitable shift in people, she stood immobile. Her refusal was beautiful. It was gorgeous. The more I didn’t watch her, the more I wanted to talk to her; but I didn’t know what to say or where to being. I could never understand how guys could just walk up to a beautiful woman they didn’t know and start talking to them. I could barely hold a long conversation with people I’d been around for months, and most of the time I was perfectly fine to speak to as few people as possible. I couldn’t remember the last conversation I initiated.

Seeing a beautiful woman only reminds me I’m lousy at relationships. I’ve known a few women. A couple of them were even worth taking seriously. I even married one of them. But that didn’t last. The same thing always happened that always happens. Her last words to me were, “You need to grow up and decide whether you want this or not.” I guess that was supposed to cure me of whatever it was she thought my problem was. I didn’t cheat on her. I didn’t even drink that much back then. We’d married young; made that mistake that kids make all too often in assuming that love and passion are enough. We didn’t know what we wanted out of life; we only knew we wanted one another. We used our grandparents as examples. “They married young,” we’d tell people when they looked at us like we were stupid. “And look how that turned out.” We were in college, and had planned to move into married housing on campus. Being independent would qualify us for more student loans. It only made sense. At the time.

When it started to fall apart, everything became my fault. She wasn’t doing well in her classes and it was all my fault because she said I expected her to take care of me. “I have to cook dinner,” she complained, “and clean the house. All you do is go to school.”

“I told you I’d cook,” I would say. “And who said you HAVE to do anything around here?”

She ignored what I said and kept on trying to be June Cleaver. Eventually she decided she wanted kids. But I didn’t; and it became to her a symbol of how much I didn’t love her. So she moved back in with her mother. I moved out of the shitty little house we were living in. Three months later, I got a certified letter in the mail informing me I was divorced.

Seeing any beautiful woman always reminds me of just one. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not much of a romantic. But there’s always that one – the one that sticks. Luna was the one who stuck. She was beautiful and young and she made me smile. But the timing was all wrong. I was still married. Luna was just this side of 18. There wasn’t anything about her I didn’t like. Her laugh was intoxicating. The touch of her soft skin made me forget how miserable I was. When she came around, I thought she was chasing one of my friends – this guy I crashed with when I left my wife. He was a swimmer. All the girls wanted him. But Luna wanted me. I think, given another set of circumstances, I could’ve fallen in love with her – if I can really fall in love with anybody, that is.

That went to hell one night when we were laughing and drinking cheap wine. I don’t really know how it all got started. I don’t remember if I kissed her or if she kissed me. Somewhere between the first sip and the bottom of the bottle we were naked. I spent a lot of time just touching her – running my fingers along every bit of her skin. Arms, legs, inner legs, thighs, breasts, neck. I was inexorably drawn to her belly button. I spent a lot of time around her stomach, kissing and touching her belly button as I worked my way down to her pussy. I spent so much time touching her because I was a little too drunk to get it up. Then I kept returning to the same place, her belly button, the most beautiful spot in the world.

But the next morning when I drove her back to her place, we rode in together silence. And she never spoke to me after. I’d see her around campus, or with mutual friends. The last time I saw her, she ran away from me. Like I’d done something wrong. When I talked to friends, they were vague.

I spent a couple of years thinking I’d done something wrong; but eventually the memory and the details fade. I remember less as the years pass. Now it only crops up every once in while – that slight weight in the pit of the stomach that happens when the body chooses to remember what the mind has the courtesy to forget.

That feeling returned on the bus, like it did whenever I saw a beautiful woman. And yet I was also struck with a sudden need to speak to the porcelain skinned woman. A longing. I wanted to know what her skin felt like to touch. I wanted to see what color her eyes were. I imagined them a bright green, like the color of her toe nail polish. Whatever color they were, I knew they would be wide and piercing. I imagined myself working my back to her on the crowded bus. Completely casual. Completely at ease. Small talk. I’d listened to enough of it to know what it sounded like. Make some crack about the crowded bus. Or the heat outside. Maybe ask her about her tattoo. No, I thought. Too personal. What would I talk about, then? I could ask her what kind of work she does. That’s one of those opening lines people use. I decided against it, though, because I would have to answer the same question. Forget it. Don’t talk about work. Talk about something else. Maybe she’s into baseball. I looked for some detail in the way she looked – something to give me an excuse. Maybe she would drop a pen or something. She carried a medium sized purse. I could tell her that her wallet was falling out and then be mistaken. “Oops,” I’d say with a silly smile. “Sorry about that. Must’ve been the way the light was coming in. That’s what I get for losing my sunglasses.” I don’t even own a pair of sunglasses. But she wouldn’t know that. Then she’d smile and we’d start talking.

Nah, I thought. That sounds stupid. A girl like that probably has a boyfriend anyway. Maybe she’s about to get engaged. I didn’t like that possibility. So I changed it. Maybe she’s just working a regular day job because she’s in a band. I liked that one. It would explain the punkish hair and the tattoo. Maybe she has other tattoos – ones with stories. Things she wants to remember.

I was in the middle of creating another life for her when she looked up. She must have noticed me looking at her. I guess I could’ve looked away quickly; but instead, I tried to smile, shrug my shoulders. An apology of sorts. Just then, the back door opened and she got off the bus, along with a bunch of other people. Some seats were opening up in the back.

I considered getting off the bus and following her. Maybe she was waiting for a connection and that would give me an excuse to talk to her. After all, the busses never ran on time. It would be something to talk about, at least. I moved towards the door, still unsure of what I was going to do. When I got to the back door, they slid shut. I could have said something to the driver; but I didn’t. What the hell would I have said to her anyway? I thought. Instead, I took an empty seat next to an older woman. She was reading a book about smart investments for senior citizens.

I looked out the windows across from me. There were still a few more stops before mine. As the bus pulled off into traffic, I looked around to see if the porcelain skinned girl was there – if I had missed my chance.

She was gone. But the weight in my stomach stayed until got to the bar and finished my first beer.