This much I know: if we had a two- or three-story house, I would, with or without a stick-horse, be galloping up and down the stairs numerous times a day. As it is, having to stay inside due to the smoke, I take regular walks over the length and breadth of our dwelling for the exercise. It has become quite the meditation. In the mysterious atmosphere of family heirlooms and books, one breathes; one explores; one visits every corner — one goes into oneself on one side and comes out on the other, just as if there were sides.
I too have a checkered past, having many years ago spent countless hours in smoked-filled taverns. Although my poor old carcass still bears the unmistakable signs of such foolishness, this too I see as part of my education. It has taken a great many years for the body to cleanse and heal itself, and despite its miraculous ability, I doubt whether it will ever be entirely free of damage. I do not bring this up in terms of regret, or pride, or judgment. I do so as a matter of perspective, for myself, and for anyone who might thoughtfully be reading these pages.
The following story, part of No Time to Cut My Hair, is the third of seventy written during a ninety-day period during the summer and fall of 2002. It was written on the fifth day of August, and contains 2,031 words. It is not about me, but a certain very good friend of mine, who is no longer living, and who, like the main character, I once saw get up to dance. A great deal of it, of course, is pure fiction, which is why, I suppose, it rings so true, at least to my biased ear. I say biased, but I’m not, really. Everything I’ve written seems like it was written by someone else. And this is very much the case with what I write now, when yesterday’s passage or poem, immediately upon its completion, enters a strange historical realm. This might be one reason I’m able to carry on, or at least feel like I do.
September 15, 2020
Cold Beer on a Hot Day
It had been years since he’d had a decent night’s sleep. His bed was rotten, hard as a rock, harder than the floor, even, but he couldn’t afford a new one and so he was stuck. Not counting overdraft notices, he had roughly three hundred and fifty dollars in the bank, but he needed to hang onto that to pay the rent, due in a few days. If anything was left, he would buy something to eat — something he really liked, something Italian, with lots of wavy noodles smothered with sauce full of mushrooms and garlic. Right now, he couldn’t afford baloney. For three days he’d been living on onion sandwiches.
What he really wanted at the moment, though, was beer. The weather was hot, and an ice-cold beer sounded good. Three hundred and fifty dollars for the rent — he lived in a lousy, two-room apartment surrounded by filthy, screaming kids whose parents turned them loose in the parking lot in order to get even with the world for not appreciating their many talents — plus the light bill, the phone bill, the late payment on his revoked credit card, and the rest of his expenses. His car was out of gas, but that didn’t matter, the battery was dead anyway. New battery: eighty-nine dollars. Two quarts of oil, air for the tires — the whole thing was a nightmare, which is why he’d taken to riding the bus, but even that was expensive. Still, he felt pretty good about his prospects. The week before, he’d had a job that lasted a day and a half. It would have lasted longer, but he hated cleaning up after caged animals so he quit.
He added everything up. The three dollars in his wallet, it turned out, wouldn’t be enough to pay his bills. It was enough, however, to buy beer. Not a lot of beer, but some. The best thing about it was, the beer was within walking distance, so there were no hidden expenses. There was a grocery store only a mile from where he lived. Of course he had no intention of walking all the way to the grocery store, because the trek would make him so thirsty he’d need the beer just to recover. He wanted to enjoy the beer. That’s where the Fly Away Tavern came in. The Fly Away was only two blocks up the road. The beer there was more expensive than at the grocery store, but it was also colder, much colder. Anyway, one pint, that’s all he asked. That’s all he needed, all he wanted, all he desired, all he could think about. And so it was decided.
He ran a comb through his hair, put on his shoes, stuffed his wallet in his back pocket, and set out. Two seconds out the door, a bright-yellow frisbee with a black stripe sailed past his ear and hit the wall of his apartment. He ignored the laughter of the thirteen-year-old monster who had hurled the thing, and the laughter of the monster’s obnoxious little friend, who was wearing boxers outside his pants. This sort of thing always went on. He knew the boys were bored out of their skulls. What was he going to do, tell them to go inside and read Treasure Island? Hardly. Instead, he picked up the frisbee and sent it flying — an exceptional toss that sailed up at the end and landed on the roof of the laundry room. The boys were delighted.
Being early in the afternoon yet, the Fly Away wasn’t busy. There were three old men scattered along the bar. The TV was on, one booth was occupied, and two poker machines were in use. There were no women in the place, except for thrice-divorced Krissy Sloan, who was working behind the bar. Krissy, though, hardly counted. You had to be really drunk to find her appealing, bless her soul, and usually that didn’t work. But she did have a personality of sorts, a pleasantly sarcastic manner that endeared her to her customers. And she gave good service. She kept the beer flowing, often for twelve hours at a stretch with nothing more than a few onion rings and a pack of cigarettes to keep her going. In short, a woman to be admired.
He chose a stool at the far end of the bar so he’d be able to see people come and go. Krissy said hi. He ordered a pint of beer, gave her two dollars, and received fifty cents in change. He picked up the tall heavy glass, which was frosted with ice. When he put it down, his upper lip was coated with foam and a third of the beer was gone.
Krissy smiled. “Gee, Dan,” she said. “You must be thirsty.”
“I must be at that,” he said.
“Well, you came to the right place.”
“Yeah. Now, if I only had some money.”
Krissy’s right eyebrow went up. “Uh-oh. Hard times?”
“You could say so. I have a buck-fifty left to my name.”
“Hey, that’s a lot. Gonna spend it here?”
He took another big gulp of beer. “Sure,” he said. “Why not? If you think you can handle the business.”
The door opened. Three men in their twenties came in and plopped down in one of the empty booths. Krissy gave them half a minute to get situated, then went to ask them what they wanted. They were already well on their way to being drunk, talking loud, feeling no pain. “A pitcher and three glasses,” their ringleader sang out in a country boy voice, and for all the world he looked like a slightly older version of the kid who’d thrown the frisbee in the parking lot — just take away a little facial hair, he thought, and you’ve got it.
He finished his beer and asked for another. It was pathetic. The new customers had plenty of money — they’d paid Krissy with a fifty-dollar bill — so why didn’t he? What was so hard about it? Three dollars? What was he doing with three stupid dollars? He looked in his wallet. It was empty now, except for his driver’s license and two wrinkled blank checks, folded in half. What were the checks for? An emergency. He always kept checks handy, because, you never know, you could be in a pinch someplace. Like now. Wasn’t he in a pinch now? But what good was a check, with virtually nothing in the bank?
When he was about halfway through his second beer, Krissy offered him a cigarette. He took it and thanked her, swallowed some smoke, held it inside for several seconds, exhaled. Feeling like a charity case, he had another sip of beer. A minute later, when Krissy wasn’t looking, he pulled one of the checks out of his wallet and unfolded it on the bar. Throwing caution to the wind, he emptied his glass.
Noticing his glass and the check sitting beside it, Krissy came back and asked politely how he was doing.
“Doing okay,” he said. Trying hard to be nonchalant, he held up the check. “Say, can you do something with this?”
“Hmm. I can if you fill out an amount and sign it,” Krissy said.
“I can do that. How does twenty dollars sound?”
“Good — if the money’s there to back it up.”
“Well, it’s there now. I wouldn’t wait too long to cash it, though.”
“Fair enough. Another beer, then?”
“Keep ’em coming,” he said. He took his pen out of his shirt pocket and started writing.
Three hours later, the Fly Away was busy and noisy, and a good-looking woman he’d never seen before was sitting beside him. Perhaps forty, perhaps a little older, shoulder-length dark brown hair, jeans, a colorful blouse on the worn-out side, an easy smile, friendly, interested in what he had to say, unimpressed by but observant of what was going on around her — he had no idea how it happened, but she was there, and the two of them were having a nice time together.
A really nice time, in fact. They talked, and while they talked, it occurred to him that they were both drunk, and that being drunk with a forty-year-old woman he’d never seen before was a good thing, if not the best thing, in the entire world, especially on a day that had started out so poorly, preceded by a week, a month, and a year that had pretty much gone the same way, as well as the year before that, and the decade before that, not counting a few ups and downs, and a few other things he either couldn’t remember or didn’t care to. None of it much mattered, because life was fine when you weren’t alone. And he could tell she felt the same way, this woman who called herself Tam, which turned out to be short for Tammy, though her name was really Sue, which was short for Susan — a name she hated because her ex-husband had liked it — so much, in fact, that he’d given her a black eye and laughed about it, calling her a black-eyed Susan. Fortunately, that had all happened years ago, and was water under the bridge. There was a kid out of it, though, but she was already in school, learning to cut hair and do manicures. Her daughter was doing something with her life, Tam said, and it made her feel proud.
With Tam’s help, his twenty dollars lasted well into the evening. To play it safe, when his new friend was visiting the restroom, he asked Krissy to cash his other check, this time for forty dollars. After chewing her lip briefly and raising her right eyebrow, she went along with the idea. The money was in his hands before Tam returned, saving him any possible embarrassment.
An hour later, they were dancing to a slow country tune coming from the jukebox. The Fly Away didn’t have a dance floor, per se, but there was enough room between the poker machines, the pool tables, and the main seating area for couples to stumble around when the spirit moved them. Meanwhile, a relieved crowd of working stiffs had descended on the place and were in the happy process of drinking their supper. No one cared — they were there precisely for that reason. The room was full of talk, laughter, and cigarette smoke. The dancing going on made everyone feel like they were on a nice cruise somewhere, out under the moonlight, far from their troubles.
He held Tam close. He didn’t feel awkward or foolish, just good. She was relaxed, he could tell, in no hurry to go anywhere. They were soon joined by two other couples. One man and his wife were well into their sixties. The man had a hat on, the woman was wearing a dress. Small town people, he thought looking over Tam’s shoulder, living their lives. Being themselves. Enjoying each other. Remembering. Forgetting.
Love comes easy at a time like this, he said, addressing Tam’s mind. And she answered with her body, her hands, the light touch of her fingers, her lips, her hair, the easy movement of her feet, saying, Yes, very easy.
And they believed each other.
A glass of beer, many glasses of beer, cold beer on a hot day. Thirst. Loneliness. God damn it, he said, addressing the smiling liars and hypocrites of the world, don’t tell me what I need, or what anyone needs. I have forty dollars in my wallet, and can no longer pay my rent. I have an ocean of grief inside me, an ocean of loss that remains unexplained and uncharted. And an ocean of joy. Do you hear me? I am a pure spirit soaring above the water, light as a feather, sailing around the earth, through sunlight and snow.
The song ended. Another began. They danced, forgetting themselves as they once were, living in the moment, remembering themselves as they wanted to be. It was a wonderful evening. Much to his surprise, it went on forever.
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Tags: Books, Cold Beer on a Hot Day, Fiction, Fire, Forest Fires, Joy, Love, Meditation, Memory, No Time to Cut My Hair, Perspective, Short Fiction, Short Stories, Smoke, Stairs, Stick-Horses, Taverns, Tim Hinshaw, Wildfires, Writing