I’m in a restaurant bar off Broadway seeing the sunlight carried on a thousand specks of dust floating in the still air and listening to popular songs from the nineties. It’s that quiet time which crawls along daily between lunch and dinner, when most of the world is holed up in offices and classrooms. I’m feeling collected and meditative, in a scattered and chaotic sort of way. I go back and forth and aside from the book I’m reading to the novel I try to write to the poetry I end up writing to the scenery and back and forth and aside again.
I’ll often be found at the bar reading or writing, my nose in a book to pass the time and pausing to talk rarely to anyone save the staff. I may get approached by strangers, happy about-the-towners who want to know, they’re dying of curiousity: why? “Why are you reading in a bar on Saturday night?” Why? Why? Why?
Why, because it keeps me straight. Maybe because a fear lingers that without my work in progress, or the work of another great mind in which to dive then I will be nothing more than just another drunk in a bar. Just another patron, just another mindless partier trying to impress, entertain, flatter or score. Just another person, a member of the nameless crowd, a limb of the faceless hulk – and that has always been my greatest fear. Reading and writing keeps me connected, it keeps me in touch with that which I’ve always felt has set me apart, that which I cannot lose for fear of succumbing to the lowly depths of average. If not that, if nothing else, then writing distracts me. It fools me into believing I am separate, above and beyond common concern and reality and this oh so silly game. Which, of course, I am not.
Lucid moments of rancid clarity part the deceptive clouds of my ego at times and remind me of the horrible truth: that I am no different than all the rest. I’m no different from all the idiots I curse on a daily basis, no different from old Fred there.
Yes, Fred’s found his way in here again to carry out his ritual. There’s barely an afternoon I spend in here that I don’t see old Fred, I’ve come to expect and rely on him as much as the staff who pour his drinks and ring in his occasional order of sweet potato fries or soup du jour. He’s not eating today, instead he simply sits and slouches and sips his liquid lunch of whatever lager’s cheap today. The empty glass that sits on the bar in front of Fred’s slack face is cleared away by the bartender who replaces it with a fresh, cold, foamy beer.
With a laboured sideways tilt, Fred slowly raises his head to the bar-man. “Is that my third or my fourth?” he asks. His voice is deep and low and slow – as is most everything about him. Fred moves through the world like a snail through tar. He talks like a cassette player whose batteries are about to die.
“Fourth,” says the bartender, holding up four fingers so there will be no misunderstanding, and then goes back to polishing and stacking his glasses.
Fred raises the glass of beer up to his lips slowly, steadily, carefully, his mouth held in an accommodating “O” to receive it. His bottom lip makes contact with the brim of the glass, his maw closing slightly to sip the cold beer as the wiry hairs of his overgrown moustache dip into a head of white foam. He takes a long, deep drink. He shuts his eyes as he swallows, and then replaces the glass on the coaster. Each part of the action appears to require the most intense concentration. He is quite a sight to behold, and every bartender and waitress in the place is powerlessly at fault of giving Fred a good, long stare at one time or another. His jacket and trousers hang from his undernourished body. His arms and legs are limp, bony noodles that sway like willow branches in the breeze as he plods from his bar stool to the bathroom and back again. His skin is pale and slightly smoky, it has the mottled texture of crinkled paper, and like his clothing appears to hang slackly from his bones. His hair is a nest of wispy brown, sometimes proper and combed, often not. A thick smell of cigarettes surrounds him like an aura. He drinks nothing but lager, and sometimes he is known to order a single rye whisky with two ice cubes and straw.
Despite the desperate and haggard nature of his appearance, he is always served at the establishment. The members of the staff unfamiliar with Fred will express their doubt as to whether or not to serve him, especially when he ambles through the doors in the early parts of the afternoon looking a fright and stinking. But the long-time bartender and the seasoned waitresses will assure any newcomers that Fred is a stable fixture here, that he has been coming in for years and the management have actually become quite fond of him. He is a harmless – if somewhat unfortunate – soul; quiet and unobtrusive. He never kicks up a fuss, never falls down or makes a mess, and he always pays his bill without trouble.
Fred drains his beer and raises his head in that same lilting manner.
“Would you like another one, Fred?” the tender asks, noticing the old man’s sunken eyes seeking out his attention.
Fred takes a moment, seeming to mull it over. Then he raises his hand in a resigning gesture. “No, I guess I’ll get the bill.”
As Fred leaves the restaurant, I watch him go and my mind turns to wonder. I wonder what manner of home life Fred possesses, I wondered what awaits for him – if anything at all. I’ve watched Fred come and go for years, sometimes coming and going as frequently as four times during one nine-hour span. I’ve exchanged a word with him on occasion, and I’ve heard pieces of his woe and trouble from others, but a man of his age leaves years, decades, ages to wonder about.
My mind wanders from my book and the empty page and follows Fred out the door and down the street. It follows Fred to a dilapidated apartment building a short distance from the restaurant. Fred turns the key in the deadbolt and enters his apartment. He looks around. Kitchen is there, single dinner plate still soaking in an inch of tepid, grey water. Beer cans line the counter top and mixed among them are soup cans, all hard at work collecting swarms of red-bodied flies. Fridge is there, probably still close to empty. He wonders how many full cans of beer are left inside. He walks to the sitting room, everything appears normal. Light bulb is there, walls are there. Television is there, the channels switching every couple of seconds. Must be that time of day, Fred thought, when nothing good is on TV. Couch is there, and Rat is still sitting on it, remote in paw, flipping through channels.
“So you’re home,” says Rat. “You didn’t pick up more beer?” He tips a can of Red Racer to his pointed snout and drains the last drops, then throws the can on the floor where it bounces off of other cans. “We’re almost out!”
Fred goes back into the kitchen and opens the fridge. He sees two full cans of Red Racer there. He removes them both and walks over to the couch and hands over one beer to Rat and opens the other for himself.
“You know, I’m really getting sick of this,” Rat says as he cracks the tab on his can. “This place is a dump! Might not be bad for you. You may be out all day God knows where, but I spend all day in this sty. You ought to spend some of that disability cash on a maid if you don’t plan on cleaning up around here once in a while.”
Fred raises his can of Red Racer Lager to his open and awaiting mouth, and drinks.
Cockroach pipes up in protest from the corner of the room, over by where the old, beaten up TV set sits and beams its bad programming, “Lay off of him, why don’t you!” Fred hadn’t noticed Cockroach was even there, but then the little fellow was always so quiet when entering a room he’s not surprised he didn’t see him. This old place, he thinks, it’s got a million holes Cockroach can use as doors and windows, no wonder I don’t notice him coming and going. “He can barely afford groceries as it is – most of which is eaten by you!” Cockroach’s voice is shrill and high, but Fred finds it tender and almost angelic, and much more sympathetic than Rat’s grating natter.
“Groceries, pah!” Rat scoffs in his most hateful tone, and spits a gob over the back of the couch with half a moment’s thought. “That reminds me, you got a smoke?”
Fred takes a cigarette from his pack and holds it out to Rat, who snatches it up quick.
Lighting up, he rants on as he has a tendency to: “You know, you’re not very grateful for everything you have. That accident could have killed you. Ten thousand volts for only a couple of seconds is enough to stop your heart. That shit pulsed through your sad body for more than just a couple of seconds. You should be dead right now, by all intents and purposes. But you’re not. You’re a damned lucky soul that you walked away from that terrible accident with only a little brain damage. You should be thankful.”
Fred lights a cigarette of his own. “Yeah. I’m not dead.”
“No, you’re not,” says Rat. “Your wife is. She killed herself because she couldn’t stand living with a brain-dead retard like you. But then maybe she was happier living with a brain-dead retard, since you didn’t have the strength or coordination to hit her in the face any more. On the other hand, who knows? Maybe she preferred an able-bodied, coherent wife-beater who could lay her once in a blue moon to a drunken, limp-dick zombie.”
Fred drinks his beer.
“I’ll tell you this much,” Rat goes on in his merciless manner. “I do miss her cooking. She definitely knew how to cook.”
“Yeah,” mumbles Fred. “I miss her cooking too.”
Rat says, “Yeah. But man, was she plain lousy in bed. She couldn’t give good head to save her soul. I bet she’s burning in hell right now with all the other lousy cocksuckers.”
“Shut up!” cries Cockroach. “You are such a bully!”
“Screw off!” says Rat, and he throws his beer can at Cockroach who retreats further into the corner. “I will kill you, cook you, and eat you! You’re nothing but a pest!”
“And you are a fat, lazy vermin!” says Cockroach, antennae fluttering in fury and fear. “All you do is sit there, all day long, and pick on him. He’s been through hell, and he still doesn’t squash me with a newspaper or hit you with the broom. He lets us stay here with him instead of kicking us out into the cold, and this is how you repay him? By reminding him of what he’s lost? You are cruel, and selfish, and I wish you were dead!”
Fred finishes his beer. He places the can on the kitchen counter and heads for the door.
From the couch, Rat calls. “Hey, pick up some more beer while you’re out, you lousy bum!”
Fred walks back into the restaurant that he left not an hour ago. I’m still sitting at the bar. I see him take his usual perch, see him slouch into position and look to the bartender, who’s already slapped a coaster down in front of Fred.
“Hey Fred,” says the bartender. “Back again, huh? Think you might get some dinner this time?”
Fred thinks on it. “Maybe later. I’ll have a beer.”
“Sure thing.” The bartender pours a beer and places it in front of Fred. “Hey Fred, you spend an awful lot of time here. What’s the matter, you don’t like your apartment very much?”
Fred grips the glass with brittle, twiggish fingers. “No. I don’t like my apartment much.” His mouth opens into an awaiting “O” as he raises the glass to his lips. He takes a long, deep drink, and his coarse, overgrown mustache dips into white, cottony foam.