You’ve been here before. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re one of those argyle-socks-cardigan-sweater-types who drink their port in the evening with their wives and their cigars on a steady diet of reality shows and cop thrillers, drifting off in fantasies of secret rendezvous and stolen fruit, eyes glazing over in sordid desire for some sweet puff of vision-in-satin they’ve never met.
♪♫ “Steam, steam, a hundred bad dreams…”♫ ♪
Tom Waits is doling out grit with a washrag voice and the ability to smuggle you back to where you were. Not home like those sordid lovers and secret adulterers. No, you’re here among the real-lifers downing whiskey in silence, only you’re standing behind the brass pole and glossy teak, shaking, mixing, stirring.
♪♫ “…Two dollar pistol but the gun won’t shoot…” slamming on the ‘box in the corner; some guy in a crusty bomber jacket with patches from Madrid, Trieste, the Ivory Coast pasted on his back, pumping quarters down its throat.
The chap facing you, tapping his peanuts absent-mindedly in your direction, reminisces out loud about his old school days, his words slurry, old-lang-syne punctuating every syllable. Innocence or something of the like — youth and all its lost capabilities. Heard it all before, a dime a dozen he and all the other lonely travelers passing through this joint. Regret spills from their throats as quickly as the whiskey is poured in.
It’s all the same to you though, watching them night after night stagger through and plunk down their bit of change for a swig. A swig and a chat.
Then there’s that pinched-looking guy at the corner swirling his fingers in the syrup he spilled on his first round. God, this place is pathetic tonight, you watching the stragglers warp in and out of reality. Grab the rag and mop up that syrup before the guy’s finger puckers, he’s been here so long, swirling and staring into that goo as if he’s deciphering his future. His vacant stare hunts you down like a wounded animal, but he says nothing. Opens his mouth, takes a breath, closes it again, his hand clenching then releasing the mug of ale he can’t seem to choke down.
Hours later, you’re scooting out the last of the lost souls, mopping up the puddle of puke the last guy left at the door as a thank-you note — tidy little package. Locking the door behind them all, you see her, the brunette with the Greta Garbo eyes. Striking. Been there so long you almost forgot she was there. Almost. Sitting in the corner, in shadow under the picture of you shaking hands with Hemingway in front of your dad’s bookstore in the old days, its glass cracked across the corner just above her head.
“I was finished hours ago.” She looked a little sideways at you like you’d come in second in the rowing league at Harvard. And you knew it would be some time before you unlocked the door and left for the night.
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