This Place Feels Like Hell and I Would Like to Go Home and Do You Mind Giving Me a Ride?
Two men greet each other on the corner of University and North 55th as the number 72 slithers away. Old friends; a yielding, embarrassed handshake becomes an embrace, and an embrace becomes a bear hug. One is dressed in a blue leisure suit and effeminate white hushpuppies. The other, dressed completely in black, breathes in the smell of Blue: the stink that greets him is that of camphor oil and dried semen, and it is not unlike the sensation of shaking hands with a skeleton.
They talk about old times, wonder aloud how long it's been, and take turns lighting Pall Malls with the lighter that Black bought in Amsterdam. When Blue touches the lighter's flame to his cigarette, Black sees it: the sore oozes white pus from a sinister-looking crater on Blue's forearm. There are others: along Blue's fingers, in the folds of his head's flesh, dotted across his neck. They are small, but they are growing; they are not scratches, nor are they scars; these are craters, festering wounds.
He wonders, as Blue's chatter wheels and banks like a flock of birds, if he's been looking forward to their reunion or dreading it.
The bartender swallows air with two nostrils almost as wide as Dixie cups; his is a handsomely upturned nose, and his thick lips contain a set of teeth as white as snow on Christmas. He has terrific hair: an afro that is the exact color of autumn sunset. The overall effect of his figure—he stands around six-foot-three—is similar to that of a giraffe craning its neck to eat the highest foliage of the savanna's tallest tree. Or else a cobra. Poised to spit.
Black shudders as the giraffe-cobra takes his order for two Bloody Marys.
Affecting an Irish accent, Blue adds, "Make it quickish." There is no logical explanation for Blue using an Irish accent, unless, for obscure reasons, Blue is trying to fob himself off as Irish. Black wonders why Blue would say this, and he turns to him in order to study the lines of his face, which is an almost-handsome, sad-looking, dark, smiling face with an overly bold jaw and a jutting nose.
"Spicy, mahn," says Blue, staring into the giraffe-cobra's eyes.
The giraffe-cobra glares at Blue, shoots an accusatory, searching look at Black, and walks to the other end of the bar to fix the drinks. When he leaves, the two friends begin a deeper, more nuanced conversation of how long it has been, of their shoes, of girlfriends and fiancées. The air feels radioactive. It feels as one does when one reheats day-old french-fries in the microwave, stares at the microwave, and then wonders if it is true that one can get tumors in one's retina if one stares at the microwave for too long.
Two Bloody Marys arrive, and a bottle of habanero.
"Cheers," says Blue to the bartender, still using the Irish accent. The bartender sneers as Blue upends the bottle and empties a quarter of it into his drink.
In an unseen corner of the bar, a rattrap announces success. The sound startles the bartender, who turns from where he stood sneering at Blue and walks swiftly away. Black and Blue turn to each other and begin some negligible conversation, but Black watches the bartender from the corner of the corner of his eye, who grabs the crippled and lifeless animal by its tail and tosses it into a trashcan. In doing all of this, the man has sown his movements with enough ambiguity that it is only Black, an ex-bartender himself and the tenant of a rat-infested apartment, who guesses what has happened.
Oblivious, Blue sips his Bloody Mary. Sweat leaps to his brow in fifty places: he has sauced his drink to undrinkability.
"You'll pay for that," says Black, "with your ass."
The bartender is a blond, blank, pretty-looking woman. As he motions her to where they sit at the bar, Blue says, "She is beautiful like a Picasso painted in blood."
"I was just thinking that," says Black, noticing the eye shadow slathered like stucco across her eyelid. Blue orders two car bombs, and the pubescent boys at the bar begin to holler excitedly.
"Lookout, car bombs!" yells one. "Watch it, people!" yells another. "Car bombs!"
Somebody slaps Black on his back and it dawns on the both of them that they have wandered into one of the lower circles of hell. Blue's eyes are pale gray in the dim lights and he grits his teeth and jams his finger into the sore on his arm.
When the car bombs arrive, they plunk the Bailey's in the black stuff and slam them without relish. They leave so quickly that they are half a block down the street before they realize that they never paid their tab. Blue turns to Black and his tongue darts out from behind a smile which Black notes is in the rough shape of a sickle.
It is called an Irish pub, and Blue points out that it is full of motherfuckers.
"Jam-packed," he says, ironically not using the Irish accent with which he demanded a quickish Bloody Mary. Their eyes are drawn to a dark corner of the bar where there's a half-empty pitcher of beer on an empty table. When they walk over to it and take their seats, Blue discovers a black leather jacket folded neatly on his chair, which he puts on. Black pours Blue a pint and then takes a deep draft from the half-empty pitcher. They're looking as pale now as two full moons; their bodies don't seem quite to fill their chairs.
A man comes to the table, sits down.
"Please, gentlemen," he says, "have some beer. And if you're cold, don't hesitate to wear my jacket."
"Sorry," says Black, putting down the pitcher.
"Sorry," says Blue, taking off the jacket.
"Oh—no, no! By what right is that jacket really mine, other than that I paid for it?" Blue stops taking off the jacket and examines his knuckles, which are gnawed down to the faint traces of a purple film.
"No right," says Blue.
The man laughs suddenly; it is the sound of a spider monkey's distress call. And what is that strange look in his eyes?
"I'll buy another pitcher," says Black, standing up.
It is after he has made his order and is standing patiently at the bar that Black notices the man-eating scourge of the Amazon lying right beside him.
Jumping back, eyes bulging, Black shouts, "Jesus Christ!" An anaconda is draped over the bar, probably two or three inches thick.
The space around him hiccups. The pubescent boys nearby turn and stare: the name of the Buddha Jesus has been uttered in vain. Black watches in horror as the anaconda rears up and grows an arm and then delicate shoulders and breasts and a slender neck and a face. The face has hair.
"Your shirt," says Black, "has the exact coloration of an anaconda."
She doesn't understand—how much should he explain?
"Your arm has been known to eat men whole."
"Sorry about your leather jacket," Blue is saying when Black returns with the blackest beer any of them have ever seen.
"Oh, you're all right," the man says, nodding. "You're o-kay."
Black notices in this instant how much the man resembles something brought up from the bottom of the ocean: a rare fish, something caught off the coast of Okinawa every ten years, all hooded eyelids and eccentric folds of flesh. Either vaguely evil or vaguely prehistoric—or both.
"He bought the pitcher," says Blue as he flicks his thumb in Black's direction. "Even stevens."
"Yeah," says the Man from the Bottom of the Sea, shifting in his chair like an oarfish. "I know he bought the pitcher."
"I'm just saying," explains Blue, "we know we were wrong and now you should have some of the pitcher. We can all drink some of it."
The man nods. But does he understand? And what's that strange look in his eyes?
The Man from the Bottom of the Sea speaks at great length about two things: Israel, and his buddy Leon. Leon has had so many concussions that he retired at the age of 38. Israel, argues the Man, is an apartheid state committing, very slowly and with prodigious discretion, an act of genocide against the people of Palestine. Oh, poor Leon: all that sadness—all that great, crushing sadness—and Israel is an apartheid state committing an act of slow genocide.
"Leon was a dishwasher, a bellhop, a Coca-Cola deliveryman. How he got so many concussions is beyond me," says the Man from the Bottom of the Sea. "He's not dumb—but slow. Slower than shit off a shed."
Black and Blue indicate their understanding.
The Man from the Bottom of the Sea goes on, "The argument for an Israeli state is ultimately biblical. The Bible, gentlemen. The Torah. Thus they defend their actions. To the world and to themselves."
"I'm Jewish," says Blue, whose given name is H_____, who comes from the row of townhouses by Iris (near the elementary school), who once shouted about the cougar in the backyard, and who left the hereditary lands of the Left Hand Arapahoe for the hereditary lands of the Munsee Delaware, and who was obliged by his parents (a surgeon and a psychotherapist, respectively) to return.
"He's a Zionite," explains Black, who is not Jewish, whose given name is H_____, who comes from the other side of the valley that was once the hereditary lands of the Left Hand Arapahoe (a one-story rambler near the Burger King on 55th), and who, for the sickness he shares with Blue, came to the hereditary lands of the Duwamish, and stayed there, and met a girl, and her name is H_____, and she is the medicine for his sickness.
"You mean a Zionist?" provides the Man from the Bottom of the Sea.
"I just mean that I don't know the Bible very well," says Blue. "If you're like a Jehovah's Witness or something—"
"God I feel awful," says Black. All but a few words have crumbled from beneath him. His eyes are drawn, as by magnets, to the gaping, festering, and blackened wound on Blue's forearm. Blue is picking at it.
"No," says the Man from the Bottom of the Sea, "I'm talking about—" He sighs, his cheeks puff. Suddenly, Black and Blue understand: written in the strange folds of his aquatic visage are decades upon decades of boozing.
"—I'm talking about a two-state solution. Two states: Israel and Palestine." A silence lumbers by like a drunk in a midnight choir. Black and Blue stare at the man, who tips the remainder of his pint into the dark, final space between his lips.
"Gentlemen," says the Man from the Bottom of the Sea, "I must bid you Adieu. I'm off to work."
They find the two biggest motherfuckers in the whole damn place. Their names are G_____ and C_____, and their ugliness is mythic. G_____ has a face like everything you've ever known put into a meat-grinder: his lips (for example) are a tube sock and the Sinclair dinosaur and the first woman you ever slept with put into a meat grinder and then reformed into the shape of a pair of lips. C_____ has high cheek bones and blond hair with something in it that must be molecularly similar to concrete. His left ear has been stabbed and a piece of metal now dangles from the wound. Black and Blue understand the literary truth of it: these are monsters.
"I'll put $13 on the game," says Blue. He withdraws his wallet and takes out three crumpled, oily singles and a twenty. He asks Black for a ten, which Black provides, and replaces the twenty in his wallet.
"Thirteen dollars to win," says Blue, staring intently at the monsters. "I hope you assholes are fucking good. For your sake."
Blue breaks. Though the odds of it occurring are unfathomably small, he manages to miss every single one of the balls.
Then it's G_____'s turn. He breaks. The balls scatter. One disappears into a pocket, and this means (since the ball was a stripe) that Black and Blue are solids. A song comes on about Arms being Wide Open.
"I love this song," says G_____. He sings along, a bounce coming to his step, and he grips his pool stick with a certain panache. He makes his next two shots.
Black and Blue shudder to think that they share the planet with the song's author, with G_____ and with C_____, and all this sadness in the world and Leon's concussions and genocide in Israel.
When it's his turn, something amazing happens to Black as he walks to the table: something beyond knowing, beyond description fills him. If held between the fingers, this thing that happens to Black would feel like a snakeskin; if it were a shampoo it would moisturize and volumize and only need to be used once in a person's lifetime; if it were a superhero, it would have the power to teleport.
Black takes his stick and sees the table: not perceive it, but see it, understand its possibilities. The entire thing becomes a series of angles on a flawless piece of white paper. The cue ball, his stick, the chalk all become extensions of him. He sinks two solids with his first shot—another is on the edge of a corner pocket, it just needs a nudge. After that, two more in a row, and then a third in another corner pocket. As though remembering old dance steps or the curves of a lover's body, Black's body contorts around his table.
The motherfuckers at the next table over stop their game just to watch him. He sinks another.
"Jesus," says G_____.
"Christ," says Blue. Black stands up and looks at the table—it is practically empty. He must now only sink the eight ball.
It's an easy shot. There is nothing in the way. The eight ball is perched about six inches from a corner pocket, and Black's shot of it is clear. The nine ball sits sullenly in the opposite pocket, while the thirteen and fourteen huddle by a side pocket. The eight ball is an easy, simple shot—a shot that nobody has any business missing—and for this reason it will be nearly impossible to make this shot.
Black gazes at the eight ball, and the night itself becomes a series of angles, of ascent and descent and probability; it becomes speed and trajectory and spin. He sees how it will all turn out:
Things will end on a sour note at the bar, Blue and Black sulking, and Blue will say something offensive or grab someone; if they are lucky, the cops will arrive before anything really bad happens; but if they are unlucky, the motherfuckers at the bar, like death-robots in some fifties B movie, will turn on them in perfect unison and tear off their testicles; Black and Blue will get too drunk; they will talk about life in the abstract; then they will go home feeling too sad to masturbate.
With this horrid thought, Black understands the circumstances surrounding the festering, sad wound on Blue's right forearm, the one that, like a man possessed, he's been digging at all night.
After he's shot, Black realizes that he's not only missed the eight ball but he has scratched. That's how difficult the incredibly easy shot was. He looks at the thing in his hand and realizes that it isn't a pool stick but actually the deadly black mamba.
The two monsters, G_____ and C_____, are $13 richer. They don't bother shaking hands with Black and Blue, rather they just walk away with Black's tenner and Blue's three moist singles.
"I can't believe you missed that shot," says Blue.
"I can," says Black.
"I believed in you so much," says Blue.
"Really?" says Black.
In this way, a great, black chunk crumbles from the night itself, falls into Black: he screams. His scream is so horrible and so sad that Blue believes that the dead will arise, that the earth will split open and reclaim him. He is the only person in the bar, except for Black himself, who actually hears it.
Black runs past the bouncer, through the double doors, and into the street; there a cab slows, stops, and rolls down its window: the Man from the Bottom of the Sea is driving.
He smiles and his teeth look like swords and knives meant to devour the meek from the earth. Black now has a fundamental understanding of the strange look in the man's eyes. In fact, he did all along.
"I've been expecting you," the Man says, reaching over to unlock the door.
Meanwhile, inside the bar, Blue thinks of how Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant and of poor Leon and apartheid in Israel. He notices something, there, off in the distance: a bit of the night missing.
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