The church steeple drifts off into the darkness. The trees in the adjacent cemetery, across Jackson Street, can only be seen by the fleeting headlights of cars. The mist whitens the trees. Everyone is at the corner bars, Bram’s or the MountAiry. Chick Evens straightens up, takes out a cigarette, a light drizzle of rain fills the atmosphere, as he walks slowly up Sycamore Street, turns-sees the corner bars.
A few run-down busses pass him, but are soon lost, once they turn the corner-he noticed a few black faces on the bus, hateful, looking faces (perhaps it’s the times, he senses).
He hears voices coming from both bars, music is loud. He opens his eyes wider, leans his neck back, his belly is a little sour from the drunk he had the night before. A taxi goes by, stops in front of Bram’s, it looks like Nancy, David, Carol and Rockwater.
Now standing in-between the two doors of the Mt. Airy, he can hear the blind noisy street behind him. There are a few familiar faces in the bar, he notices looking over the western style, swinging doors. He thinks it would have been better had he come later-more people, but he’s here now. He heads for the bathroom, urinates and combs his hair, washes his face, he’s been drinking half the day, up at Jerry Hino’s house, a half-mile past the church (he had been playing cards with Jerry and his brother Jim, and Mike Gulf, and Betty-Jerry’s wife, had to feed the kids, so he decided to leave.)
He comes out of the bathroom, his light jacket laid over his arm, his friend Allen is in one corner of the bar, he nods his head-I mean they both nod their heads for recognition of the other. Bill and his wife Judy are in a booth to his left, Bill had just come back from the war in Vietnam. John St. Clair is in another corner of the bar, his girlfriend, is by herself at the bar opposite him. Big Ace, close to six-foot six inches tall (the neighborhood mannequin), no teeth, 210 pounds, ten-years everyone else’s senior, or thereabout, not all that bright, is sitting next to Doug, singing his weird song: “Twenty-four black birds baked in the pie,” then he forgets the rest of the verse, he always does, and goes into a humming episode, as if lost inside his own head-pert near dancing on his stool, pounding on the bar feet kicking.
Doug and Ace are sitting in the middle of the horseshoe shaped bar, like most everyone else, drinking beer, it would seem a beer fest was going on; but it’s really a normal every day thing, and on the weekends the only difference is they all get drunker. The bar is not much more than a dive: no, it is just that, a dive. Chick Evens feels a tinge lousy but knows with a few more beers he’ll not feel anything, anyway, that will fix him up. As he orders a beer, drinks it down, his headache disappears. He runs his hand over his forehead, as if to wipe the beer sweat off of it.
The worst thing for Evens is that he has spent all his money but a dollar, buying beer at Hino’s house. He is Not sure how he’ll get by tonight, but there is always someone to buy a fellow neighborhood buddy a beer. He’s good for it he tells himself.
He hears Doug’s voice, far, far away-or so it seems, he’s dating Jackie, Evens’ old girlfriend. He now joins Bill and Judy, he knows he can borrow a few bucks from Bill if he has to, needs to. The side window has a light chunk of the moon showing, all around it is a dark sky, and he falls down-purposely, onto the soft cushion at the edge of the booth, by Judy.
This whole business of drinking night after night has made Evens thirsty. Bill notices Chick’s glass of beer is empty. Bill says-in a wholehearted way, “Come on let’s get another round,” he is smiling, waves the waitress over-
“As long as the glass is cold, and the beer is cold, I like it,” say Evens.
These two bars is a place for the neighborhood boys to drink at, seemingly it always has been; they are drunks and they don’t even know it, at such a young age too. Chick is but nineteen-years old, Ace is twenty-nine, and Jackie is his age and Doug perhaps five years older, and Roger is Doug’s age, thereabouts. From the looks of things, should a bystander take note, the so called Donkeyland Neighborhood Gang, so named by the police, the Cayuga Street neighborhood, in essence, one would think they were all weaned from the cradle to the grave at these two bars, on beer.
Inside the Mt. Airy bar, is an inexorable dampness, grayness to it, it reeks (The Great Northern Railroad is down and under the Jackson Street Bridge, just outside the bar, you can hear the trains coming and going now and then. On the other side of the bridge are the warehouses).The jukebox is playing “I’m Sorry,” by Brenda Lee, hire Reno strippers for a private party it was playing something by Jack Scott, previously, and Elvis of course was played a half dozen times along with Rick Nelson, and the Beatles. Most all the males in the bar have their shirtsleeves rolled up, past their elbows. Some are chewing-whatever-a nosy veracious crowd, but more under control than Bram’s across the street-there, there is a pool table; some of the boys will shift bars later on, as will those in Bram’s.
The waitress is in her forties, has a shabby apron on, the Italian owner is her lover, he’s married, but after they close up the bar, she settles down in his office with him, they’ll not leave until close to three o’clock in the morning.
The jukebox goes louder, a few folks are dancing. The bar is filling up, with smoke, multicolor white to pale faces, Native American faces, copper color faces, one Mexican, no blacks.
Armpits are starting to smell like fish, old rotting fish, Bill hands Evens his beer, Fran, the waitress, just brought it over.
“Shut the door,” a voice yells, “you’re leaving in the flies!”
That was Larry and his wife Jeannie who had come through the swinging doors. There’s an empty booth alongside Evens, they grab it, everyone shaking hands or hugging one another, as if they hadn’t seen one another for ages.
“Two bottles of beer,” says Larry, he likes bottle beer, as does his wife, she’s Native American, like Jackie her sister, and John St. Clair, their brother.
The neighborhood factory, “Structural Steel,” its second shift is letting out now, and Jack T, and Dan the Crazy man (pleasingly plump),so he is known-are now walking thorough the bar, Jack is now going with one of Chick’s old girlfriends, a Mexican. Bunches of the neighborhood boys still work at the factory, and most all of them have at one time or another. Old Charlie, even got Evens a job there once, and then Charlie retired, he was Mexican.
The more people in the bar, the more undecipherable the smell, it weakens the stomach, nauseates it.
“What a sickening job,” says a voice, it seems to come from the area John L and Karin are. John L, had traveled to California with Evens recently, as Jerry Hino had a year back, went to Omaha with Evens, and Ace’s brother Keith, had went to Seattle with him; all wanting to rush back to the neighborhood but, Keith.
The only relief from the squeezing smells in the bar, is to leave the bar for fresh air, so, Evens picks himself up, excuses himself, he hears the collective voices, the motors and horns coming as he opens the bar doors, that faces Sycamore and Jackson Streets. His ears clear out all the deformed thick noises. His memory fades from all the prominent cheekbones, dead looking, red-eyed drunks, all those drowsy looking bodies, that had clustered around him, and everyone one else.
He lights up his 60th cigarette for the day. He sees the accumulated garbage along the side of the bar, in the street. The music from the bar jukebox mingles with the live band across the street. He sees Sonny playing the guitar (Sonny had taught him a thing or two about finger picking, in his younger days: and that’s not all that long ago. He also played for a short time with one of the national Rock and Roll bands)
The door to Bram’s is wide open, he can see his older brother Mike, drunker than a skunk, sitting at the bar-his elbows leaning on the bar, his back to him. He throws the butt onto the sidewalk, buries it under his heel. He had sucked it down to a half inch, a Lucky Strike.
He thinks: why don’t I leave, and never come back?
He thinks: I have dreams, other than drinking myself to death here in the two dives. I want to go to San Francisco. (But he really wants to travel the whole world, and get a college degree, and write poetry, and books but he doesn’t say this, because he’s from this neighborhood and people would think he’s insane, and can such things really be possible? I mean, are these dreams not for the other person, not really for folks like him; but only time will tell. But perhaps he’s willing to wait, even if it takes a life time. He doesn’t know all this remember; only I do-now looking back.)
He watches the circle of foam from a pitcher of beer being carried to a table of five people at Bram’s. He sees an old man vomiting alongside the bar. He sees cars in the parking lot disappearing into the night of the gibbous moon.
He thinks: We’re all frightened to go away; constrained by our minds. Defeated before we’ve even tested life; and then we grow old. A thousand times we say: if only.
The music on the jukebox is playing a sad song, “Lonely Street,” by Rick Nelson. His world grows quiet, more intense-he looks inside the bar, stink, armpit smells, more beer being passed from one hand to another, garbage on the floor, smoke clouds are settling overhead like cobwebs throughout the bar, the same images every night-this weekend night.
This bar is a can of worms, he tells himself, a brain twister, but he walks back inside: as if it was home; although he doesn’t say that, but if he listens to his second self, he’ll know the truth, and the truth is, it’s not home (although the devil would like him to think so),it’s just a dive, and that he will have to learn quick, because time is concentrated in the moment; and life is short at best: and dreams do come true, if you have a plan, prayer, and if you work it, and have patience.