Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part I

I hoisted the pint glass up to my eyeball and scowled down the frothy sides. Time for another, I decided, and made a twirling motion with my hand. I knew that the gesture pissed Mabel off, but it always seems to get me another cup the fastest. Maybe she spits in it enthusiastically or something. I don't care. The days have been feeling so long lately.

I looked at the rows of hooch lined up like soldiers under the bar mirror. I have my system: when their labels become too blurry to read easily, that means it's time to get back to the family. The bottle of bitters is one of my favorites to stare at. Tall and tapered like the end of a trumpet, it has been there since I first hoisted a stool at the Homely Barrel, some twenty years ago. Now and then, some young novice might come in and order a mixed drink that Mabel has to look up in a book, but not even college kids find a reason to drink bitters. It's safe to say that anyone who comes to this place more than twice is an Iron City man like the rest of us. I squinted at the old bottle, and noticed that there were handprints drug across the dust on its surface. The cap was clean too, and a drop of liquid glistened at its edge. What the hell?

I sat up straight, thinking I'd had one too many. I looked frantically around, and noticed this older guy, swirling his glass around jovially, looking puzzled at the new MP3 jukebox here, at the stained wooden walls there, and then at me. I tried to look away, but it was too late, I was spotted.

"Say Mister, can I buy you one of those?"

Well, he couldn't be all bad. He had a round wispy head with a big elfin grin pasted on it. It was hard to tell if the smile was sincere. He bobbed jauntily as he covered the three paces to the bar, like he was enjoying the novelty of it all, like he was lost, but didn't care. "Whaddya got there, son," he said, but didn't look at me when he spoke, rather glanced all around, taking in what passed for ambience at the Barrel, or maybe he was checking to see if anyone was watching.

"Um, just a beer," I said.

"Just a beer!" He beamed at this announcement like he'd made an unexpectedly brilliant deduction. "Waitress, just a beer for me and my good friend here." And he patted me on the back and took up the stool next to me.

"So," he said, "nothing like a beer between friends, um…"

"Bob," I said.

"Just a beer, for me and my good man, Rob."

"What is that you're drinking? If you don't mind me asking."

"I asked for something old fashioned." He paused, and his eyes got dark. His voice became low and reedy. "It tastes like piss if you ask me, Ron. Piss. Do you know what piss tastes like? The things they made me do. I'd kill every last…" He trailed off into a confused, threatening mutter.


"…wouldn't give in to the bastards--"

We both stopped awkwardly. Desperate to change the subject, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head. "What do you think of all the strangers in town, all the cameras and stuff?"

This perked him up. He lifted his head high and thrust out his jaw. I couldn't tell if the effect was more Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeve or Popeye elbowing his way across the deck. "My fellow Americans," he said, and winked at me.

"Yeah, it's an election I guess. Everybody's talking about it, but it's kind of hard to think about those things, with the wife and the kids to worry about, you know?"

"Yeah pal, you gotta pay attention to 'em. Or next thing you know, there's some hot young…"

"Well, it's not that. The gas prices and the health care are killing us, but we can't afford to move closer to work. Hell, I'm lucky that I got a decent job at all."

"Taxes, mate," he said solemnly. "The crisis government your investment housing money responsible subprime authority." He leered, and I noticed that the corner of his mouth was shiny. I hurriedly gulped at my beer. "I'm not really an expert on economics," he concluded. "Marry money, Tom, that's my advice, take the opportunities. Hire an accountant, and a lawyer." His laugh was as thin as his voice, and it didn't really seem to come very far out of his mouth, like most of it was directed inward. Hhnn, hhnnn, hhhhnnn.

I looked around, and twirled my hand desperately at Mabel.

"Heh, I don't know why they say you buy beer, more like renting it."


"You like Arabs, Jim?"


He glowered at me. "America's got to stand tall, wouldn't you say? Isn't that what you people say?" His moods, I was realizing, were unpredictable. His bitters and his Iron City were sitting at the bar, untouched.

"I don't really know any Ar--"

He was speaking through clenched teeth. "Look, it's military tradition Ben, and it's an American tradition. America needs to be strong, needs a strong leader, and sometimes we have to kill a lot of people. These are important times."

I was taken aback. I couldn't tell if he was talking to me or to himself.

"I want your solemn oath Fred, that you will go out and vote in the primary next Tuesday."

"Um, sure, okay."

"Put her there, my friend."

I rose (with gratitude, truth be told), but as I stretched out my hand, he cleverly dodged it and leaned into an embrace, his puffy cheek pressed right against my chest. Haltingly, I patted his back a couple of times.

As he walked out the door, I considered telling my wife about the encounter with the strange old man. Or maybe I'd just have another beer. Surreptitiously, I grabbed his, but left the tumbler full of yellow liquid. It was much too early, I could still clearly see the handprints on the bottle.

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