by: Tim Grutzmacher ((Header art, entitled “Couple,” is by Cornelius Gurlitt.))
When a pair of misfit barflies convene to drown their sorrows, a deeper truth is unveiled…
Darlene inhaled her shot. She absorbed it. To her it was as essential as oxygen. I started to feel as though I had been duped, that she had this whole scheme cooked up before she sidled up next to me. I’ve thought that others think of me as an easy mark, a real rube but I like to think that my gullibility isn’t entirely a product of stupidity, but my belief that people aren’t really as awful as they are. The ounce of Jim Beam slid down her throat without even the slightest look of discomfort. To her it was sustenance, she thriving on anything toxic. I felt a green wave of nausea rising up in me as I downed my shot, and I hung my head and let out a sickly groan.
I was at Lefty’s, as most of my stories these days start, looking out the window, willing the sun to go down so as to soften the hue of the ramshackle establishment. The barroom was small, a house of its size you would call cozy, but I can confidently say nobody had ever affixed that description to Lefty’s. Around the L-shaped bar were stools in varying degrees of disrepair, held tight to the ever sticky floor like vinyl stalagmites. A well worn pool table relegated, like a disobedient child, to a dimly lit corner. Billy was behind the bar, dumping buckets of ice into a bin, seemingly disappointed that the menial task didn’t kill as much time as he’d hoped. He and I rarely discussed anything other than baseball, and with the home team twenty games out of first place in late August, we found ourselves without anything to talk about.
Billy had stocked the bar for a crowd that surely wouldn’t come that night and dusted off the bottles of booze that had become purely decorative. Summer had brought with it the smells of stagnate, baked-in beer mixed with overripe citrus fruits and a general mustiness that nothing short of an exorcism would remove. It was so bad that I found myself needing to step outside every now and again to get some air. As I was kicking a cigarette butt off the sidewalk into the street, a man walked by me pulling his boy of about three in a red plastic wagon. The little boy said “Hi” to me with the genuine enthusiasm that only a kid can convey and the youngster hurriedly told me that they were out for a walk. I offered the most innocuous hello that I had, the word bursting from my lips sounding sharp and craggy. His dad apologized for his son’s geniality, fixed his eyes on the sidewalk, and lugged the wagon past me. The boy rested his chin on the lip of the wagon, his jowls jiggling with every crack in the sidewalk, and half-heartedly waved his pudgy little mitt at me as if participating in a parade against his will. I couldn’t help but wonder how the man explained me to his kid when they were out of earshot.
“You’re not looking too good. You sure you don’t want to give up?” Darle said.
“There’s no quit in this guy,” I countered.
There is no justifiable reason to be at a bar during the day, all by your lonesome. And in a place like this nobody ever asks you for one. I should have never even been at Lefty’s, but sometimes there are advantages in having nowhere to go. I should have been out pursuing a hobby. The one time I tried to quit drinking, everybody told me that I needed to do something constructive with my time. I never figured out what that meant. I’ve wondered what the grownups my age do on Saturdays. I had long lost touch with those in upright society. I’ve never been able to make myself care about the things that they do despite a lack of trying. I imagined them to be washing their cars, or mowing their lawns, or heading to picnics with a dish to pass around and the recipe at the ready were someone to ask for it. I know they’re out there; I catch a glimpse of them often through Lefty’s window. That glass feels much like the partition of an animal exhibit at the zoo. What was on the other side was scary yet fascinating and I wondered how long I would make it in that world before being ripped to pieces.
“So are you warming to the idea yet?” Darlene asked me after adding a third tier to her shot glass pyramid.” It could be fun. I could learn how to cook. I bet I’d be pretty good at it.”
“I just don’t see what’s in it for me.”
“So that’s all that matters to you? This is an opportunity to perform one selfless act before you die, Steve. I’m sure there is something I could give you that you might want.” she said clumsily brushing her hand against mine.
“Well, it’s not like you’re asking me to help you move or something. This is quite a bit bigger.”
“Not really. If anything this is much easier. You don’t really have to do fucking anything. You can just hang out and continue with these worthwhile pursuits of yours,” Darlene said coyly.
“I just don’t think that it is something that you enter into lightly. I don’t know, I guess I’m old fashioned.”
Darlene gave me a look that I had come to know all too well. A look that comes with the sad realization that someone isn’t all that you had hoped they would be. It was a look of disappointment and it was the first time that I had seen it from her. Having been let down by nearly every man she had ever known, I thought that it would be no more troublesome to her than a rain shower and didn’t anticipate the disconsolate expression.
“But we had a deal. That doesn’t mean anything to you?”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t think that I can do it.”
“Fine,” Darlene said. “I’ll be sure not to take up any more of your time.” She began to gather her things up off the bar and stuff them into her cavernous bag.
“Wait” I said as I grabbed her wrist. Darlene turned her head slightly in my direction, careful not to catch my eye. “It’s your turn to buy.”
The first time getting drunk at Lefty’s was magical. All the men had tales of conquest and comic misadventure and the women mysterious and fetching with a level of sophistication I thought nonexistent in this town. Those romantic notions of this place were dashed after each subsequent re-telling of those tales and finding the mysteries easily solvable. The elegant women had vanished, leaving me to wonder if they had only existed in the boozy ether. It was disheartening to find that these people were no better off than I was. Of course, that revelation came to me after I had rented the apartment directly above Lefty’s. I was thinking longingly about a watering hole that could actually improve my mood, if such a thing existed, when Darlene pulled open the bar’s heavy glass door and managed to get inside just before it snapped quickly shut. She used every bit of her slight frame to swing her large, weighty purse onto the bar. It landed with a thud and several pill vials, labels crudely scraped off, tumbled out and skittered down the bar in my direction.
“Why you’re a veritable walking apothecary.” I said, collecting her vials, each one weightier than I was expecting, and handed them back.
Darlene wore her hair much longer than a woman her age should, tied into a braid that ended just north of the crack of her ass. She wore it this way more and more often, I assumed to hide the gray that seemed to have been poured on top of her head and was spider webbing its way down her black tresses. She had said that the guys liked to have something to hang on to when she’s on all fours and she needed any sort of distinction from the younger girls that she could get. She was too skinny with the sort of frail frame that people over forty only attain through chain smoking and food aversion. But despite her best efforts, she was still beautiful and she always had a little glint in her eye and a fiendish smile turned up on one side. She always looked at me like I was the subject of an inside joke that only she knew, like she had just had a sex dream about me where I ravaged her in ways she’s never known. Though she was perpetually frazzled, a livewire of nervous energy, I noticed that her hands were shaking more than usual. Her eyes were red, but lucid and her makeup looked as if she applied it with the back of her hand. Billy placed her usual Beam and Coke with an additional shot on the side in front of her.
“Are you alright? You kind of look like hell if you don’t mind my saying.” I said as Darlene gulped down her shot.
“Oh, I’ve been better.”
“You’ve looked it too,” I said as I waited for her to take offense to the slight but she didn’t seem to hear it.
“So what are you up to today?” Darlene asked me as her eyes darted about the place like she expected an ambush to burst forth from behind the pool table.
“You’re looking at it. I’m probably going to be here for a good while.”
“You wanna get married?” Darlene asked without taking her eyes off the bar, spinning her shot glass in small circles.
“Sure, why the hell not. Wait, you mean to you?”
“I don’t know, today, tomorrow, soon.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but I never thought of you as the marrying type.”
“Me neither and I’m probably not, but I think I wanna give it a shot. I could be the marrying type; I know how to take care of a man. You should know that better than anyone.”
“Why would you want to marry me?” I asked her. I had all but given up on the prospect of ever getting married. I had been engaged twice before the woman had come to their senses and broke it off. The first one said that I had a temper and the second that I drank too much. I would argue those points if I could, but alas I cannot.
“It’s just one of those things that you’re supposed to do in life, right? And I could probably do a lot worse than you,” Darlene said.
I knew that Darlene could do a lot worse than me because she has. She’d come into the bar on the arms of countless guys over the years, from trash straight out of the gutter to suits, but she treated them all the same. They were ATM’s and she knew all the right buttons to push. She would drape herself around their necks as long as they were laying money down on the bar. If they were holding out, she would then whisper something in their ears, which never failed to open up their wallets.
“I don’t know how I could turn down such a romantic proposal. Also, traditionally, I think that you’re supposed to date someone before you marry them. I’m not sure though, it’s been quite awhile for me.”
“People date for years before getting married and still get divorced so what the fuck. Why waste time?”
“Time is one thing that I’ve got plenty of. What I don’t have much of is money and patience and I think you need some of both to get married.”
“Shit, as much as you’re in here you probably don’t have as much time as you think. Well, I know that you’re a betting man, so how about a wager?” Darlene said as she motioned for Billy. “How about a good old-fashioned drinking contest? If I win, you have to marry me. You have to dress up and look happy at the ceremony, the whole nine yards.”
“A drinking contest? That’ll be a good story to tell the kids one day.”
“Kids? Sorry Stevie, this bakery closed its doors a long time ago. One and done for me”
I’ve only heard Darlene acknowledge her daughter a couple of times. I only met her once, under an unfortunate circumstance when Darlene called her for a ride home one day when one of her suitors unceremoniously dumped her at the bar. Her daughter was about twenty-two and despite her upbringing seemed to have a pretty good head on her shoulders. Judging by her hair and dress I figured that she was a lesbian, which was good should her mother’s taste in men be genetic. She stormed into the bar and gave Darlene a guilt trip the likes of which would’ve made my old man jealous.
“What do I get if I win?”
“I’ll tell you what, for the first month I’m like goddamned 7-11. I’m always open and I’ll allow whatever freaky shit you’re into.”
“Why not?” I said as I extended my hand to Darlene. She grasped it weakly. I’ve wagered a lot more for a lot less before, but I’ve never made a bet that I wouldn’t mind losing.
Darlene rummaged through her purse, exploring the impossibly deep recesses before pulling out a piece of paper and handing it to me. It was a printout of a webpage featuring a glass statuette with dolphins molded into the shape of a heart.
“What’s this? The lover’s cremation urn?”
“What’s this all about?”
“After I’m done drinking you under the table and we get married and you have to honor and obey me and shit, this is where you’re stuffing me when I die.”
Darlene had always had a rather morbid sense of humor. I remember her paging through the newspaper’s obituaries and laughing at the deceased’s nicknames and haircuts, and at the flowery prose about the lives of such inspirational and imaginative people that most of us didn’t know ever existed But the urn was ridiculous; it looked like the art project of a fifteen-year-old girl that had recently decided she was too old for unicorns. I thought that human remains should be stored in something a bit more sacrosanct than a tacky urn featuring two dolphins curled into one another like they were trying to penetrate each other’s blowholes.
“In this? You really want your ashes put in this thing?”
“That’s right, so whenever you host your little after bar parties everyone is gonna notice this ugly thing and then you’ll tell them it holds your dearly departed wife and then you’ll just go on about how great I was. And you can’t let any skanks you bring home touch it.”
“Oh skanks, I sure am going to miss them.” I said faking wistful.
As soon as I said it, Darlene slumped over like her shoulders were being drawn magnetically to the bar and she looked at me with a seriousness I didn’t think her capable of.
“Don’t fuck around on me, just don’t do it. You can handle being just with me for awhile. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
I had always thought that she had just viewed men as a utility, a means to an end. I had thought that feeling a basic human emotion like love was a luxury she couldn’t afford.
“Why are you even shopping for urns anyway?”
“I just happened to come across it and now I want it. I don’t know, I guess I’m an impulsive shopper.”
“You’ve got to be the only asshole that has ever bought an urn on a whim. Is that a condition of this contest? That I have to put you in that dolphin box and keep it in my place? “
“What the hell, it is now.”
“Anything you wanna add while we’re at it? A minimum number of times we have to do it each week or anything?”
“Just don’t pester me, okay? I know I don’t lead the healthiest lifestyle, and at my age I don’t really see any reason to change,” I said more sternly than I had intended. Darlene extended her pinky finger and I locked mine around hers, forging our pact. “You wanna talk about my funeral arrangements now?” I asked her.
“No, you’re all set there’s, room in the urn for two.”
“I’d rather you throw my body off the overpass.”
“Okay, I can honor that request.”
The sun had long since gone down and the perpetually dead bar had developed a shallow pulse. Our collection of shot glasses had attracted a throng of onlookers. Several people watched the contest with interest but nobody bothered to ask what was at stake as often the reasons for drinking were immaterial at Lefty’s.
“So Steve, how are things at work?”
“You’re interested in making small talk now?
“Are things pretty steady? You got pretty good job security and all that?”
“Yeah, I think that we’re doing pretty well. They’re offering me lots of overtime.”
“They give you pretty good insurance there?”
“I’ve got insurance. I’m not sure how good it is. Why?”
“Just curious,” Darlene said as she peered intently down at the floor as if noticing it for the first time.
“Ohhh, so that’s what all this is about?”
“You want to get on my insurance.”
Darlene’s eyes rolled back slightly and I could tell she was groping for a lie, a selection from the voluminous catalog of deceits used to placate men that start asking questions. She had made a living of telling men what they wanted to hear. She opened her mouth to speak and instead just sighed.
“Okay, you got me. I’m sorry if you thought that I was madly in love with you.”
“That’s all this was about? You never wanted a husband, you wanted a primary care physician and co-pays? That’s a pretty lame excuse for such a big farce.”
“That’s not all it’s about.”
“What else then?
“We’re getting old and we’re gonna just keep getting older. I don’t know, don’t you wanna have someone around? I know I’m not exactly your first choice and I can’t say that you’re mine, but don’t you wanna have somebody there for you? Don’t you wanna know that there will be at least one person who gives a shit when you die?”
“I really don’t care. We all die alone anyway. So what, you think that if we were to get married then all of a sudden we’re just going to have this deep, emotional connection? I don’t think it works that way.”
“But you don’t know, we’ve always had a good time together. I’m not saying that I’m gonna magically transform your shitty life into something great, but I’m positive I could improve it a bit.”
“Who says my life’s so shitty?”
“I do. Everyone outside of this bar would. You work so you can drink and you drink because you don’t know what else to do with yourself. Do you really like coming here every day?”
Darlene’s voice rose steadily throughout her tirade and our spectators began to laugh at her lambasting of me. “Oh fuck off, all of you. Like you’re any better than he is,” she said.
“You know you could have just been honest with me,” I began “At least I could respect that.”
“So what do you want me to say? Hey Steve, can I get on your insurance cuz I think I’m dying and I can’t afford any medication without it” The bar nearly fell silent except for the snickers of a few of the bar’s patrons delighting in the fact that misfortune was gutpunching someone other than them for a change. The drunken revelers slunk away, no longer sure of what outcome they hoped for from the contest.
“Did you say dying? You’re dying?”
“Maybe. People overcome it sometimes.”
“ALS. Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
“Wow, that’s pretty shitty of you. You came in here thinking that you could get me or some other sucker to marry you and then one day you’d just tell them, ‘Oh, by the way I have ALS and I’ll probably be dead soon.’”
“I didn’t have any sort of plan. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m scared shitless and I’ve gotta figure out something to do.” Darlene pressed her hand against her forehead, shielding much of her face, but I could still see the quivering of her bottom lip.
“I think we’re done here,” I said as I pushed back on my stool and stood up on wobbly legs.
“So, you’re giving up?”
“The bet is off due to non-disclosure.”
“You are such a pussy. You’re just gonna walk away cuz it might be a bit tougher than you thought? Fine, go, I thought that I had proposed to a man.”
“I’m sorry that I don’t want to watch you slowly deteriorate and die.”
“I don’t want to see it either but I’d be seeing the same thing happen with you. You’ll probably end up dying before me.”
“And it’s none of your fucking business.”
“I had considered all the shit that I would’ve had to take on with you and I was still willing to do it.”
“Why are you involving me in all this? Why me?”
“I don’t know. You were always pretty nice to me. You’re about the only person I know that doesn’t look down on me. And I know that you’ve got nobody too.”
I fell heavily back onto my stool. I hadn’t thought for a second that Darlene was actually serious about the whole thing. I thought that we would get drunk, have a good laugh at the wager and then, if she were between boyfriends go upstairs to my apartment and fuck in that perfunctory way. She always got this far away look on her face during sex and I imagined that she was going over her life in reverse, thinking of how she could have possibly avoided ending up here. Each encounter left me thoroughly depressed, but she’d always swear to me that she enjoyed herself as she hastily got dressed.
“So what’s going to happen to you? What would I have to look forward to if we get hitched?”
“Well, basically everything in me will stop working. All my muscles are gonna shut down and then that’s it. They say most people make it about three to five years, but I’m not so sure about that, the way I feel. Shit seems to be moving along quickly.”
“So what will you need me to do?”
“Everything,” she said with a slight smile as if realizing for the first time the magnitude of her request.
“I don’t even know if my insurance will take you.”
“Yeah, who knows.”
“And I don’t have much money besides that.”
“Me neither,” she said gathering herself off her stool.
“But we should probably give it a try, huh?”
“Are you sure?”
I thought she would be overjoyed by my acquiescence, but she seemed to be guarding herself against any further insults I might hurl at her.
“No, but you’re right, maybe I should do something for someone else once. Besides, I’ve been looking for an excuse to keep out of the bar for awhile.”
Our cab sailed through flashing yellow lights in the orange pre-dawn haze. The oppressive heat was already settling in and the evening’s booze was poring through my skin. I watched Darlene as she slept, as errant rays of sunshine caught her face with each bump in the road. She slept an ugly sleep, mouth agape and snoring, but restful. And rest is something that I think life has provided her very little of, so I let her be even after she spotted my shirt with dribble. I held the ring boxes in my hand, inside them were two tokens of endless love that we procured at the pawn shop at three A.M. for one hundred bucks. For all I know, I may have bought back the one I sold there years ago. Darlene was jolted awake when the taxi hit a bump.
“Are we almost there?” Darlene said as she pulled herself upright with considerable effort.
“Probably another ten minutes or so.”
“So if I were to tell you that I love you would you ever believe it?”
“I think I probably could someday.”
“Do you think you could ever say that you love me?”
“Yeah, I could see that.”
“Good, cuz I’d like you to.”
“Do I have to mean it?”
“I guess not, just make me believe it, ok?”
“Alright, I’ll do my best.”