(First revisions of  a piece from 6/26/97)

“I don’t know which is worse,” Bill rasped, cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t get me wrong: being off the booze for six months has been the most responsible thing that I have done, and probably ever will do, in my lifetime. The only problem is, now, I smoke like a fiend. I can’t, and don’t even wanna, imagine how hard this sumbitchin’ habit is gonna be when I’m ready to quit.”

Bill took a long drag, held it in, and then, like a dragon, forcefully expressed clouds through his nostrils.

Two soft-packs – one slightly crinkled, the other unwrapped – sat nondescriptly next to Bill’s left hand as slumped atop one of Genie’s barstools.

                                Genie’s: A Neighborhood Joint

Bill meandered into the “regulars'” crowd most days. Close to home. He could, and usually would, get hammered at any time of day, Genie’s normal business hours permitting, and hobble his way home. No driving required.

Bill frequently pondered what he would do if he could travel back in time. Those were the fun days. Foggy days.  Friends – no friends. Bottle – no friends. Bottle becomes friend.

Blissful solace.

In actuality, in hindsight, in reexamining the situation from a “normal” person’s perspective, shit really wasn’t that good. However, life shifts according to one’s habits.

According to some “scientists” somewhere — and there is quite a bit of — in some headline — logic to this information —  found on social media, —  considering all forms of repetition — a habit takes around 21 days (?) — lead to some form of growth — to embed itself into one’s day to day routines.

Musty, dingy, sour smelling room, why do people seek you out? Society’s petri dish. Place the spores in dark, damp location. Allow to multiply overnight. Like sea monkeys. Or shit.

Bill found striking up a conversation with a 70-something “slumper,” with nothing better to do with his time and his “10 spot” than to sit around and bitch about politics and how things used to be, very relaxing.  Ten dollars worth of booze and fellowship. All a waning man needs sometimes.

Nick wasn’t 75 years old, but he was turning 60 in two weeks, and had enough stories of drunken debauch and blatant insanity to place his “spiritual age” at roughly around 92. As he shouldered up against the far end of the bar, the well-oiled loner’s stories echoed throughout the slightly cavernous setting

“…when it was safe to walk ANY…where,” he slurred.

Nick slurped Cold Gold from a schooner.

“I quit smokin’ when I turned fitty,” Nick said with a gurgle cough. “Then, when I turned fitty-fye, I started smokin’ like a goddamn chimney. We tied one on somethin’ fierce on my 55th, so there wasn’t a better time to start again. Now I can’t go a goddamn day without driving to the Quick Station to pick up another pack.”

Nick took a long gulp from the chalice of perpetual sadness and followed suit with a long, overexaggerated “AAAAHHHH!”

There were only a few things Bill missed about it. Dropping a satisfied ‘AAAHHHH’ at the end of a long draw of beer one of those things. This can’t be done with a whiskey or tequila shot. The only thing that follows a whiskey or tequila shot, at least the whiskey and tequila brands doled out at Genie’s, is the transformation of the imbiber’s face to Melponeme (aka the tragedy face of the two drama masks).

“AAAAHHHH,” trumps drama mask.

“It’s all in the head,” Bill said to his buddy, Paul, two months ago. “If you really want to do something, you have to do it in the mind first. THEN, and only then, will the pieces fall into place.”

It had worked this long; why not keep it going? Bill was feeling the kind of co0l that had actually been a result of his decision to abstain the past six months.

Bill knew bars weren’t the safest place for him to be. (The bars aren’t the goddamn trigger!) In fact, most of his destructive drinking took place in his basement. However, there was something nostalgic about being back at Genie’s. It felt comfortable. It felt relapse-worthy. It really wouldn’t be that big a deal. Just a shot and a beer back to ease the pain.

It can wait a bit. Relapse isn’t a pool that needs to be cannonballed into right away. Wade into it. 

“I wish I could do something to help you with your smoking habit,” Nick said while lighting a second Camel, “but I got nothin’. But you are doing a great job going cold turkey on the booze.”

Nick belched deep congestion from the pits of his stomach.

“Once you get to the mastery stage, THEN, and only then, should you attempt to quit smokin’,” Nick followed his comment with a swig of beer. “You’re a young guy, you got to have some kinda crutch. I know if I was still your age, my crutch would be all up in that young tang out there.”

Bill chuckled. Nick stood up.

“These days, my looks have left me, mainly at the hands of my favorite vices, but gone nonetheless,” Nick spoke with slight slur. “However, my poetry has not.”

Nick walked to the end of the bar and stepped upon the bench of a single booth left from the early days of Genie’s. He cleared his gravelly throat, popped his neck, and leaned towards the bartender.

“Wallace, my boy. Will you hand a man a drink to prime his performance?”

Wally poured Old Granddad 3/4 deep into Nick’s glass; two ice cubes and a splash of coke followed. Nick reached his trembly, vein-mapped hand out for his potion.

“Thank you, my friend. I knew your daddy, Wallace. Great man.”

Nick took a slug off his glass; Wally rolled his eyes and wiped down the bar.

“Wallace,” Nick swayed slowly from one foot to the other as he spoke, his mind seeming to drift back in time while he was reminiscing verbally, “your father was one HELLUVA man. He used to tear some shit up every now and then, don’t get me wrong.”

He belched liquid fire, coughed, then followed it up with another slug,.

“He was a good musician also. Talented sumbitch he was. I wrote all kindsa poems and shit, but we could never get together on an idea that worked. I didn’t have any musical talent. So I just performed, what would now be called…”

He paused and tried to gather his thoughts.

“What the hell is that called? It’s not stand-up…”

A cackle from Maggie, the token bar hag, pierced through the smoke of the bar.

“Spoken WERRD,” she screeched.

“Spoken word, that’s it,” Nick pointed at her. “Wallace, get Maggie a drink. And, Maggie, listen closely to my words, deary. You may decide the ugly mug is worth a romp after my performance art.”

She cackled at a higher pitch than before, then yelled, “I got nothin’ else to do, stud.”

Nick raised his left hand, put his right, glassed hand to his lips, sipped, gasped, and paused.

“And now, my friends, a nugget a wisdom in poem form.”

Bell Rings outside.

The closet door wide open; 

No one looks inside except those who desire; those who do not fear!

Those who are alone —

Forgotten —

Content.”

Bill looked around the room while Nick rambled his poem aloud. Most were listening without looking. An occasional cough or a “clinkle” of glass disrupted an otherwise silent crowd. Although Nick was a nobody outside of Genie’s, he was a somebody in front of the day crowd.

“A bell rings outside,

and those who know will hear it. 

Already the time has come to a point

and passed.

The hangers on see

The hangers on do

what they do not want to happen.”

——— (Intermission) ———

“You show me one person…” Nick pronounced with bravado enough to draw the attention of a few patrons, “Just ONE…who doesn’t have something bringin’ ’em down. Some albatross hangin’ ’round his neck. Show ME ONE!!”

Nick blinked his eyes. His mouth: rice cakes. His lips glued to his tongue as it attempted to deliver a moisture-less swipe across them. Wipers across a dry windshield.

Lipers.

“You can’t! Nobody is a clean fucking slate!”

Nick looked to the ceiling, a bit off kilter with inebriation. A drunken demon yell followed.

“Aint a fuckin’ God…Damn,” Nick slur-belched, “…one of ’em!”

As his right knee buckled enough to put him off balance, Nick placed his hand upon a ledge housing the base of the “Daily Specials and Other News” chalkboard — the one that had not been changed in at least 20 years; the one that has not been cleaned in at least 20 years; the one that has fallen upon many drunken soldiers over the past, at least, 20 years — and tremored his body back to a semi-steady stance. As he brought himself to a slow, slightly circular sway, Nick grasped a paper “Coke” cup from the bar. He held the open end of the cup to his right eye and bounce-shifted his head towards the nearest light, as if he were looking through a kaleidoscope.

A few of the regulars chuckled at the awkward, yet fairly normal, behavior. Bill occasionally scanned peripheral for any negative harbingers of sloppy, non-choreographed violence. Fortunately, the day drinkers were usually too intoxicated to act upon threats of physical harm cast upon each other. The arguments, albeit frequently illogical and melodramatic, would get heated enough to raise voices, invoke profane-infused threats, and cause the occasional attempts of standing to fight, only to be followed by gravity-induced falls backwards (or sideways, depending upon the level of intoxication) into booths, chairs, and floor tiles.

The clunk of a heavy bottomed scooner resonated through the bar’s wood.

Meet Terry.

“Helllll, NO, I ain’t racist if I laugh at a cultural difference,” Terry bellow-burped. “See…gAWD Damnit…this is what I don’t get about this so-called ‘advanced’ generation with all your gAWd Damn gadgets and your gAWWWD Damn stupid mustaches and shit.”

Meet Max: a 20-something, hipster wannabe, trust-fund baby wasting his parents’ hard-earned life savings in the same run-down, sour-smelling dive bar most weekday afternoons.

“Well, my wise sage, what is your definition of racism then?”

Bill couldn’t avoid eavesdropping. It was a blessing and a curse. The daydreaming and the eavesdropping kept him sane and insane at the same time. It was some weird plane of existence that made life so great and confusing and bearable.

Most days.

“Firsss,” Terry stutter-spat, “your sarcasm is as poorly executed as your stupid gAWD damn beard. I ain’t a racist if I laugh at a cultural difference because I am not making fun of the culture altogether. You kids can be so gAWD damn ignorant sometimes.”

Max raised his eyebrows mockingly and pursed his lips. It was a learned strategy from all his time wasted watching The Daily Show and other virtue-signaling, pseudo tongue-in-cheek, “look at how important we all our” brainwashing. He saw his opportunity to preach.

“According to my Sociology professor,” Max quipped, “you would be labeled a racist of the subconscious kind.”

Terry, mid-sip, spat beer onto Max’s suede-elbowed jacket.

“What the fuckka you talkin’ about? Sociology professors don’t know a thing these days. They may as well be called “Anti-Sociology” professors. You bring your gAWD damn Sociology professor in here and I’ll kick his gAWD damn ass, both physically and mentally.”

Terry took another gulp from his schooner and slammed it back on the bar.

“It ain’t a gAWD damn racist act to laugh at something different that your own experience. Its laughing at life in general, you smug idiot.”

Max subtly shuffled in his seat.

“When I laugh at the way a black guy…”

“African-American?”

“What I laugh at the way a BLACK guy… or a BROWN guy, or a gAWD damn GREEN, YELLA, or MAROON motherfucker tells a funny story about something that happened in his life, I ain’t laughing because I’m racist. I’m laughing because it sounds funny in my brain. I can’t apologize for that. I can’t say I’m a racist for that.”

Terry paused, closed his mouth while holding a fist up to lightly pound his chest, and belched.

“I laugh at mannerisms, sayings, fashion choices, and gAWD damn food preferences because it’s different than me. Maybe I’m making fun of myself for not being that funny or worldly or whateverthefuck? You ever think of that, smart boy?”

Max smirked and sipped his scotch.

————————————————————-

Bill scanned the room, looking for a reason to convince his brain of the camaraderie he was missing out on. His eyes scanned the booths, barstools, and back room wall sliders, but nothing pulled his eyes to a stop. As he brought his eyes back to the attention of the Jaegermeister cooler, his ears tuned to eavesdrop mode. Behind him, a 20-something hipster wannabe trust-fund baby wasting his parents’ hard-earned money in a dive bar at 2 in the afternoon, was talking on his cell phone.

“…and that’s just the point I’m trying to convey to you,” he said in a raised ‘attempt at a whisper’ voice, “I won’t put up a fight for Misty because I know exactly what is going to happen – one of two things. The first is part of what has already begun. She will go right back to him and it will last. He will be a new man and will really love her. He may have realized that a girl who has that much love for him is worth holding onto. Whether he loves her or feels insecure without her really may not matter because either way this could be good for his love life and/or self-confidence.”

Pause.

“The second option is probably less desirable for all parties involved. She will change her mind after a couple of weeks or a couple of shots, whichever comes first. Then, she will text me.”

Ding.

“What the fuck,” he said. “It’s already happening. I gotta call you back, dude. Uh, huh. Yeah. Ok. I’ll call you back.”

Kids are so stupid, Bill thought, while sliding another cigarette from the pack.

Chapter 2: Sam’s Shanty

A musty, broken down bar in the middle of the city. It is around the middle of March in southeast Chicago. It is a little after dark, with the darkness barely dimming outside the rectangular windows, but dark enough to welcome the warm glow of the street lights. The window overlooks the rain dampened streets. “Sam’s Shanty” is written in red lettering with black outline. A bulky, red Budweiser sign lights up the window. The bar is not too inconvenient for business persons working the area and, regardless of its appearance, the “Shanty” tends to pack them in on Friday and Saturday nights.

A man walks by the window, as the camera follows him backwards in through the door to a seat at the bar. Presently, there are only five people in the bar:

Sam: the bartender / owner, a fat man, standing about five foot ten, with a girthy 250 pounds resting upon his bones. Sam sported a Rollie Fingers ‘stache and sweat stains peeking out of his red Budweiser t-shirt

Heather: semi-attractive, thirty-something barfly who seems to permanently affix herself to the “Shanty.” Eighties-style blonde hair – bleached, poofed up, black roots — fell slightly upon the straps of a revealing, yet slightly soiled, party dress. She was smoking Misty cigarettes and drinking a vodka and (smuggled in due to her picky tastes) her own grapefruit juice. 

King Dong: our protagonist in this chapter. Dong refuses to answer to his birth name (Nicholas). He’s a semi-pro wrestler by night (every other Saturday at the Arab Shrine Temple), a personal trainer by trade (for now), and a wannabe pornstar. He sits at the bar, asks for a beer and a shot of bourbon with honey and lemon, all the while wearing sunglasses even though the darkness closes in on the bar. Dong’s faded NAVY  sweatshirt and black stocking cap paint him the stereotypical image of a Rocky wannabe. He is a fairly big guy. He’s not fat, but not overly muscular either. His athletic build and short, almost buzzed, black hair give Dong the look of a rough dude, but his easygoing nature, especially when one gets to know him, make him one of the barroom favorites among all sots, suits, slobs, and sluts walking through the door  of the “Shanty”. 

Two otter people dwell in a red booth towards the back of the bar. Their idle chatter provides a slight buzz for background noise.

Dong has a black left eye and a few “scratches” (mat or rug burns) on his cheek

(Music in the background is “Low Down Man” by Squirrel Nut Zippers)

Sam: Whatta need, guy?

Dong: Got Schmidt’s? (He takes off his stocking cap)

Sam: Nope.

Dong: Pabst?

Sam: Nope.

Dong: Hamm’s?

Sam: Enh-Enh (shaking his head side to side)

Chapter 3: Gina n’ Bill

“What’s wrong?”

Gina rolled onto Bill’s left arm, grasped his right hand and started slapping him in the face with it.

“Quick slapping yourself,” she talk-laughed in a baby voice. “Hey…quit slapping yourself.”

Bill stayed deadpan, looking up at the popcorn ceiling. In certain light, the ceiling sparkled randomly. He leaned his head to the left and noticed a different set of sparkles each twist of his neck. He could close one eye while leaving the other closed, then reverse eyes. Each time, a different gleam of hope. Or not.

“Hey,” Gina said, puffing her lips into a pouty face. “What is wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know…you just seem kind of…distant tonight,” Gina sighed. “You didn’t really say much at dinner, you didn’t talk much on the way home, and now you don’t even seem interested in sexing me up.”

Gina was adorned in a loose, red t-shirt and boxers. His boxers. His Darth Vader boxers. Bill loved when she dressed like this. Slutty Vader-kitten. It always made him horny, yet very self-conscious of his closet “Darkside”.

Not tonight though. He didn’t know. He just didn’t feel aroused. He didn’t really feel anything at all.

Strange.

“Bill…,” Gina began lightly rubbing his forearm, “will you at least talk to me? Now?”

“I’m sorry, ” Bill said. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, baby. I just feel…I don’t really know how I feel. It’s hard to explain, but it isn’t you, Gina. It’s me.”

Chapter 4: Wedding Vapors

“Let me make dinner for you,” Brian exhaled within a cloud of smoke.

The water pipe he had been smoking on was smooth. One rarely realized the copious amounts of smoke wafting into his/her lungs until the exhale.

He held out the glass for Carrie, who was sitting across from him with a puzzled look on her face.

“I don’t know, Brian,” she said, followed by a slight pitch variation that was barely noticeable unless you really knew Carrie.

“What do you mean, ‘I don’t know,” Brian asked her. “All I’m asking is to make dinner for you. It isn’t like I am asking you to marry me. I just haven’t seen you in a while and would like to make some food to go along with our convo. You do eat, do you not?”

Bill stood with hand still prominently projecting the water pipe into her direction, eye brows raise with a slight turn of the head. A boyish gesture. The same gesture that always got her back in their younger days.

Remaining composed and as deadpan as she could muster, Carrie snatched the glass aways from Bill, pulled her favorite blue lighter — the one with two astronauts standing on the moon  — and lit the bowl with the determination of one who may never inhale again.

It was her nerves. They always tied themselves in knots when she felt trapped.

The flame erupted violently from its metal encasement, then slowly bowed to the bowl, as if it were bidding its audience “adieu”.

She quickly pulled her mouth away from the cylinder, holding the smoke in her lungs, while light puffs rolled slowly from her nostrils.

Brian made the face of a bulldog, protruding his bottom teeth, saliva gathering at the corners of his mouth.

Smoke billowed from her nose and open mouth followed by a fit of coughing, gasping for breath, and laughing hysterically.

He still knew how to make her laugh. Make her smile. No matter how bad her mood, when he was around she lit up. It sometimes took longer than other times, but it happened nonetheless. Her brown eyes would clinch to slits. She never seemed to blush, which was a quality that many guys would shy away from. It was a form of poker-face that made men slightly insecure. Instead of the traditional reddening of the cheeks and/or flushing of the neck and “Breastal area” (Brian had a knack for renaming anatomy), Carrie would radiate like the glow of a sunset. The whites of her eyes would peek through clouds: two suns simultaneously breaking the storm.

(This is not the end. This is a piece that will be revised and added to over time.)

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