There was a night, back before I got sober, when I went to MacLaren's just as the streetlamps were coming on. I pulled out a stool near the register and sat, feeling like a heap of dirty laundry. To be clear, I was there because of a girl, not because of what happened the day before.
No one spoke to me for a while and I wished they wouldn't. I tried to focus on the TV for a distraction, but was interrupted by the sound of feet scuffing down the stairs, past the cigarette machine, the arcade games no one ever played. A hand brushed my back.
-- How are you? Eddie was always smoking.
-- In need of a shave, I said.
-- Keep the beard. Get a bath.
I ordered both of us a round. Eddie was in a band but I did not remember what he played or if he sang. Back then it didn't matter. All music seemed to be saying something rich and strange.
-- How was the show? I asked.
I did not remember there being a show, but it's what one asks of someone who is in a band.
-- Better. Last Saturday was still sparse. And Benny fell into the chicken wire.
I pondered this.
-- What day is today? I asked.
-- Tuesday, why?
Sometimes the days just seemed to slip through my hands like eels. He walked to the table behind me and sat with his boyfriend and leaned his head on the boy's shoulder. The albumen light filtered through the smoke. A handful of strange dark faces with palms on their wallets. Hunting the room and leaving.
By this time I was getting anxious. I picked at a button of sap on my forearm. There was more under my fingernails. I hadn't changed since getting off work. We'd cut seven trees that day.
Two guys wearing faded flannel stood uncomfortably close. One of the guys had his arm in a sling. The other one kept glancing over at me as though about to say something and it was making me uncomfortable. I started to walk away and he put a hand on my wrist.
-- Do you mountain bike? he asked.
-- I've been trying not to, I said.
I'd already had a few drinks. He laughed awkwardly. More of a snort really.
-- Sorry, I don't, I said finally. Why?
He shrugged. -- Mud on your boots. Looked like chain grease on your pants.
-- Nope, I replied.
I stared into my beer. Eventually, he turned back toward his friends.
The bartenders scrambled, but never seemed to get in each other's way. Every so often they slipped out and sat in the corner behind me with all the others I recognized from the kitchen or the bar, post or mid-shift, their ashtrays un-emptied. They treated me all right, but I wasn't one of them.
Two days before a man I worked with had died. I was dropping sections of a tree from a hundred feet up and I'd screwed up the knot. He was standing at the bottom, running the saw. The bolt of white oak probably weighed north of six hundred pounds. I didn't drop it on him. I didn't. But it landed right beside him, as I imagine his wife fell into bed next to him at the end of a long day. He never saw it coming. I heard the thud after the piece hit the ground in front of him and saw him fall backward. The saw bar pitched up and down. I thought it was off, maybe it wasn't. The chain caught him. It was a fucking mess. No one else saw anything.
Vinny, another drunk I used to cut pulp with, walked by. I could tell by his stupefaction that he was high. He swung himself onto the stool beside me.
-- Hey Fonz, he bellowed. You look sadder than I am.
-- Nope, was all I said.
-- Nah, you kill someone or something?
I knocked my beer onto the floor. Vinny threw his hands up and cackled. Someone else cleaned it all up and I was poured another drink without a word.
-- I heard what happened, Vinny said.
-- You did, huh?
Again, I picked at the sap on my arm.
-- Yeah, damn shame. Old Duck Man caught the saw. Shoulda been wearin' the helmet.
-- I think he was, I lied.
-- Oh. Chaps too?
I shook my head.
-- Oh well. Safety first, am I right?
He slapped my back.
I got up to go to the bathroom. I didn't have to pee or anything. I'd always known I was some kind of coward. When I sat back in my stool he was still there.
Across from me, the bartender dropped his dishrag and lit his cigarette with a tea candle inside of a coffee mug. The beer tap handles swung back and forth in his hands as though on a switchboard. A brass cherubim pissed water into an overflowing glass. Behind him, the cooks spun in bluish light. One of them smiled and waved at me with a gloved hand. A needle of Clorox wormed between the smoke and my unfinished beer, which sat warming between my palms.
Stealers Wheel looped on the sound system. Vinny sang along. I decided I was relieved he was here. He knew that I was waiting for the girl, but he didn't know that she wasn't coming. By that point, I knew. He spoke and I forgot to listen. More cold from the door. More of the light let out.
Someone in the program once told me they used to torture traitors in imperial China by removing small pieces of flesh, one at a time, until the traitor died. Sometimes the cutting would continue even after death. I couldn't imagine minding that part so much, due to the unconsciousness and all, but part of the deal was the denial of one's whole self in the afterlife, which is silly. The only ones ever reach the afterlife without some part of themselves missing are babies, and that's the only tragedy worth shedding a tear about.
But that night, things were still miserable and buzzing like an overpowered bulb. I leaned forward as the bartender shuffled over to fill a glass from the peeing cherubim.
-- What's the most rancid thing you have in this place?
-- Customers, he said, walking away.